In one of the most sustained batterings he has endured in the 2012 presidential primary debates, Mitt Romney was repeatedly put on the defensive over his business and government record and the attack ads by his supporters that are swamping South Carolina’s airwaves.
The former Massachusetts governor’s rivals have been increasingly desperate to derail his front-running candidacy as Romney looks to put a virtual lock on the Republican nomination in Saturday’s primary.
Rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both took aim at Romney, landing blows that, despite hitting their mark, may have canceled out either candidate’s chances of emerging Monday night as Romney’s key challenger.
Together the opponents sought to argue that Romney lacked principles, was exercising an unfair advantage through a “super PAC” created by his former aides, and was hiding his income taxes to deflect criticism.
Santorum delivered one of the first blows, laying a trap for Romney about voting rights for prisoners. A super PAC supporting Romney has been running ads accusing Santorum of backing the right of felons to vote from prison — a charge the former Pennsylvania senator said was false.
Santorum defended his Senate vote, saying the measure he supported was aimed at restoring voting rights for criminals who had served their time and finished their probation and parole requirements. He noted that Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and that the criminal population disproportionately included African Americans. He pressed Romney about whether he supported such a measure.
Romney said he did not believe that people who had committed violent crimes should ever be allowed to vote, leading Santorum to parry that when Romney was governor, violent felons in Massachusetts could vote even while they were on probation and parole.
“If in fact you felt so passionately about this that you were now going to go out and have somebody criticize me for restoring voting rights to people who have ... exhausted their sentence and served their time and paid their debt to society, then why didn’t you try to change that when you were governor of Massachusetts?” Santorum said.
Romney responded that his state’s Legislature was 85% Democratic, and he went on to criticize the existence of super PACs, although he has benefited the most from their existence this election cycle.
“We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth,” he said later in the debate. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could give what they’d like to campaigns and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them?”
Gingrich criticized Romney’s inability to get his supporters’ super PAC to remove an ad that distorts Gingrich’s position on abortion. He said it “makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president” — a line that drew hoots of approval from the audience.
Romney shot back that Gingrich’s supporters were running an ad replete with erroneous charges about his business record that is “probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”
With his experience as co-founder of a private equity firm, Bain Capital, under attack, Romney said for the first time that he would “probably” release his tax returns later this year if it was apparent he would be the nominee.
Gingrich defended his assaults on Romney’s business record, which includes job losses at some companies Bain invested in, and what Gingrich called a pattern of loading a “handful” of companies with debt, after which they went broke.
To applause, the former House speaker said that questioning Romney’s record in private business was “exactly what campaigns ought to be about. And 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.”
One of the debate panelists, Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal, asked Romney about American Pad and Paper, a company that went bankrupt, costing hundreds of people their jobs, while Bain Capital took out $100 million in profits and fees.
Romney said the company was caught in a shrinking industry and some of those who lost jobs were union workers who didn’t want to transfer to a nonunion plant. And he pushed back against the notion that he practiced a particularly harsh brand of capitalism.
“I know that people are going to come after me. I know President Obama is going to come after me. But the record is pretty darn good,” Romney said.
“If people want to have someone who understands how the economy works, having worked in the real economy, then I’m the guy that can best post up against Barack Obama,” Romney said to cheers from supporters in the crowd at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
Short of money and time, Gingrich and Santorum are in a struggle to become the social conservative alternative to Romney. So far, none of the GOP contenders has been able to corral a clear majority of the vote on Romney’s right, allowing the former Massachusetts governor to pull away from a divided field.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also hopes to compete in that mini-contest, but he has struggled to excite Republican voters and is facing a real threat of elimination after Saturday’s primary. Demonstrating a comfort level that eluded him in early debates, Perry repeatedly delivered crowd-pleasing lines, one coming when he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s description of videos of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, which he said demonstrated the president’s “disdain” for men and women in uniform.
When Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “calls that ‘utterly despicable’ — let me tell you what’s utterly despicable: cutting Danny Pearl’s head off and showing the video of it,” said Perry, referring to the 2002 killing of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan. The newspaper was a co-sponsor of the debate, along with Fox News.
South Carolina’s primary electorate has a higher proportion of military families and veterans than earlier states, and Perry, an Air Force veteran, hopes to tap them. But the other veteran in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is at a disadvantage because of his dovish views on the use of military force.
Paul continued to defend his isolationist foreign policy beliefs, maintaining that the nation would be safer if it was less militarily engaged.
“I would say that maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want to [be done] to us,” he said, as the crowd booed. “So we endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?”
The Houston-area congressman also argued that King would agree with his opposition to wars, noting that the civil rights leader opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam.
The debate featured a slimmed-down field of five, Jon Huntsman Jr. having pulled out of the race hours earlier. The former Utah governor endorsed Romney and took a blast at the GOP campaign’s “toxic” atmosphere — although he had made his own attacks on Romney.
Romney did not attend Huntsman’s event. The endorsement is likely to provide, at best, a marginal boost to Romney’s campaign in South Carolina, since Huntsman was drawing about 5% in recent polls.
Political veterans in the state warn that the race remains fluid.
“It’s a lot closer than people think,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who is unaligned. “It’s a margin of error race right now.”
The debate, the 16th of the Republican campaign, kicked off what will likely be the last concentrated series of televised faceoffs. Four debates are scheduled between Monday and Jan. 26 in South Carolina and Florida, the two states that will hold primaries this month.