MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Mitt Romney's Republican rivals attacked his record as a private businessman and challenged him to release his federal income tax returns Monday night in the first of two debates before a pivotal weekend primary in South Carolina.
"I'm proud of my record," the former Massachusetts governor responded, but he avoided an answer on making his tax returns public.
The debate unfolded hours after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman withdrew from the race and endorsed Romney.
That withdrawal raised the stakes of the debate — and one on Thursday night — for Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.
Gingrich and Perry led the assault against Romney's record at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that bought companies and sought to remake them into more competitive enterprises.
"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."
Perry referred to a steel mill in Georgetown, S.C. where, he said, "Bain swept in, they picked that company over and a lot of people lost jobs there."
Romney said that the steel industry was battered by unfair competition from China. As for other firms, he said, "Four of the companies that we invested in ... ended up today having some 120,000 jobs.
"Some of the businesses we invested in were not successful and lost jobs," he said, but he offered no specifics.
It was Perry who challenged Romney, a multimillionaire, to release his income tax returns. The Texas governor said he has already done so, adding he believes Gingrich will do likewise later in the week.
"Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money. ... We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now."
Santorum stayed away from that fight, then started one of his own.
He said a campaign group supporting Romney has been attacking him for supporting voter rights for convicted felons, and asked Romney what his position was on the issue.
Romney initially ducked a direct answer, preferring to ask Santorum if the ad was accurate.
He then said he doesn't believe convicted felons should have the right to vote, even after serving their terms. Santorum instantly said that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney hadn't made any attempt to change a law that permitted convicted violent felons to vote while still on parole, a law that the former Pennsylvania senator said was more liberal than the one he has been assailed for supporting.
Romney replied that as Republican governor, he was confronted with a legislature that was heavily Democratic and held a different position.
He also reminded Santorum that candidates have no control over the campaign groups that have played a pivotal role in the race to date.