Romney is pushed again on tax returns, business background at SC debate

GOP candidates take aim at Mitt Romney

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GOP candidates take aim at Mitt Romney 03:52

Story highlights

  • Gingrich faces off with a moderator about remarks on struggling Americans
  • Perry: "We cannot fire our nominee in September"
  • One fewer podium stands at Monday's debate after Huntsman bows out
  • The event comes five days before South Carolina's primary on Saturday

Mitt Romney's rivals put his corporate record under the microscope in a Republican presidential debate Monday, with most of his GOP opponents looking to dislodge the party's frontrunner from his perch ahead of South Carolina's primary on Saturday.

The issue of poverty also factored prominently into the Martin Luther King Jr. Day match-up where a large studio audience roared in support or disdain over candidates' stated positions.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced off with a debate moderator over remarks the candidate had made about the growing class of struggling Americans, as the GOP field worked to woo voters in a state where unemployment is pushing 10%.

The debate began with candidates launching a multifront offensive against Romney.

Gingrich defended his criticisms of Romney's career at private equity firm Bain Capital, saying he would not be "intimidated" by blowback from his own party.

"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," Gingrich said.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry called on Romney to release his tax returns -- and, in a bid for a second look -- told the rowdy studio audience watching the debate that "we cannot fire our nominee in September." He said Republicans should carefully examine each candidate's record during the primary process.

"Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money, and I think that's a fair thing," Perry said.

Asked directly about the issue, Romney appeared ruffled and said he has released information about his assets as required by law. He indicated he would likely release his tax returns in April -- though he refused to commit to doing so.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum also took aim at Romney, the winner of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, over an attack ad from a political action committee supporting Romney.

Santorum called on Romney to publicly denounce the ads, and aggressively pressed him to answer questions about his stance as governor on whether felons could vote.

"We have plenty of time, I'll get there," Romney responded to Santorum. "I'll do it in the order I want to do."

Romney defended his records both as governor of Massachusetts and in the private sector, saying companies he helped invest in while leading Bain had eventually created 120,000 jobs.

"My record is out there," Romney said. "Proud of it."

The debate turned to race and poverty as moderator Juan Williams asked Gingrich a series of questions about the candidate's charge that Obama has been "the food stamp president" and a suggestion that poor adolescents do light janitorial work to earn money.

Taking the confrontational tone Gingrich has wielded to great political effect in previous forums, the candidate argued back and enlivened the audience by proclaiming: "Only the elites despise earning money."

He said his own daughter had done janitorial work as an adolescent.

"I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness," Gingrich said. "And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job."

During a segment on foreign policy, Texas Rep. Ron Paul again stood alone as his rivals took hawkish positions on military spending and tracking down and punishing alleged terrorists.

As some in the large studio audience booed, Paul accused his opponents of "war-mongering" and urged Americans to adopt the "golden rule" regarding foreign policy.

"This country doesn't need another war, we need to quit the ones we're in!" Paul said.

Romney tacked in the opposite direction, criticizing Obama for drawing down troops in Iraq and declaring as president he would direct military leaders to track down terrorists.

"We go anywhere they are and we kill them," he said.

      Election 2012

    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
    • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
    • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
    • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.