Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
FLORENCE, S.C. — Seeking to protect his standing here, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on Tuesday assailed challenger Rick Santorum's record on voting rights for felons, an issue that resonates strongly with conservatives. Santorum separately argued that the former Massachusetts governor "promotes lies" as the two intensified their dispute from the previous night's GOP debate.
"We have a candidate who's not going to stand up and tell the truth," Santorum told reporters in Charleston, complaining that Romney refuses to condemn TV ads run by his supporters. "That leads to real serious questions about whether that man can be trusted to tell the truth on a variety of things."
But Romney, speaking separately in Florence, defended the accuracy of the ads in question, although he maintains he has no control over the negative commercials by outside groups that are flooding South Carolina in the days leading to Saturday's Republican primary.
"I hear that Rick Santorum is very animated that the super PAC ad says that he is very in favor of felons voting," Romney said. "Well, he is! That's his position."
While Santorum complained about the negative commercials during Monday's debate, Romney's three other challengers also tried a host of other attacks in hopes of knocking the former Massachusetts governor off stride.
They kept the spotlight on the multimillionaire's wealth and business dealings by pressing him to release his income tax returns. Romney hesitated but eventually said he might make them public in April. By then, he hopes to have the presidential nomination in the bag.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Romney seemed to qualify that even farther, suggesting that he would release just one year of his tax returns — not the six previous years that President Obama released or even the two years that John McCain released in 2008. "People will want to see the most recent year," Romney said.
Romney also came under heavy pressure in the debate on the issue of his job-creation record at his former private equity firm Bain Capital, and his evolving views on abortion. Blamed for the tide of negative commercials, Romney stressed the independence of the super PACs that have been running ads in his behalf against Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other rivals.
On Tuesday, Santorum said that by refusing to condemn the ads, Romney "supports lies, promotes lies and stands behind those lies."
Santorum was upset about an ad that says he "even voted to let convicted felons vote." Santorum complained that the TV spot, while referring to "felons," shows someone in an orange prison jumpsuit, suggesting Santorum would allow felons to vote while still incarcerated. Santorum has supported voting rights only for those who have served their sentences and been released.
But Romney noted that "people who have been released from prison are still called felons if they've committed felonies."
Meanwhile, Gingrich picked up the support of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who appeared with him in Florence, calling the former U.S. House speaker the smartest and toughest candidate. Romney already has the more coveted endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite, however.
Monday's night's debate was as fiery as any of the more than dozen that preceded it. Romney, the man to beat after back-to-back wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, took heat 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.
Monday night, 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.
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