David Goldman, Associated Press
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Mitt Romney's four remaining challengers are keeping the spotlight on the Republican front-runner's wealth and business dealings by pressing him to release his income tax returns. Romney says he might make them public in April. By then, he hopes to have the presidential nomination in the bag.
His rivals did their best to knock the former Massachusetts governor off stride in a contentious debate Monday night, going after him on several fronts. Romney didn't bend under heavy pressure on the issue of his job-creation record at his former private equity firm Bain Capital, nor did he apologize for his evolving views on abortion. Blamed for negative commercials flooding South Carolina's airwaves, he stressed the independence of the super PACs that have been running ads in his behalf against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other rivals, including former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Romney said that while he might be willing to release his tax returns, he wouldn't do so until tax filing time. The multimillionaire former businessman didn't get much gratitude from his rivals, who want him to release the information in time to influence South Carolina voters going to the polls on Saturday.
Gingrich was quick to suggest Romney wouldn't delay for months if he had nothing to hide and that his hesitation wouldn't sit well with voters. "Last night weakened him," Gingrich told "CBS This Morning" on Tuesday.
Romney seemed hesitant when confronted with the tax issue on stage. He at first sidestepped calls from his rivals to release his returns, then said later that he'd follow the lead of previous presidential candidates.
"I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so," he said. "I sort of feel like we're showing a lot of exposure at this point," he added.
Monday's night's debate was as fiery as any of the more than dozen that preceded it. Romney, the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination after back-to-back wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, was under fire not only from Gingrich and Santorum, but also from Rick Perry and Ron Paul.
The five will meet again in debate in Charleston Thursday night, the last time they will share a stage before the primary two days later.
The first Southern primary could prove decisive in the volatile contest. Gingrich has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in South Carolina would assure his nomination as Democratic President Barack Obama's Republican rival in the fall, and none of the other remaining contenders has challenged that conclusion.
That only elevated the stakes for Monday night's debate, where the attacks on Romney often were couched in anti-Obama rhetoric.
"We need to satisfy the country that whoever we nominate has a record that can stand up to Barack Obama in a very effective way," said Gingrich.
The five men on stage also sought to outdo one another in calling for lower taxes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul won that competition handily, saying he thought the top personal tax rate should be zero.
In South Carolina, a state with a heavy military presence, the tone turned muscular at times.
Gingrich drew strong applause when he said: "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear idea about America's enemies. Kill them."
Perry also won favor from the crowd when he said the Obama administration had overreacted in its criticism of the Marines who were videotaped urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Gingrich and Perry led the assault against Romney's record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought companies and sought to remake them into more competitive enterprises, with uneven results.
"There was a pattern in some companies ... of leaving them with enormous debt and then within a year or two or three having them go broke," Gingrich said. "I think that's something he ought to answer."
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