A smaller field and sharper tone in South Carolina debate

The major Republican presidential hopefuls gathered for their 16th televised debate Monday night in a field that was smaller in size — former Utah governor Jon Huntsman had suspended his campaign a few hours earlier — and sharper in tone as time seems to be running out to stop front-runner Mitt Romney.
Under fire for declining to release his tax returns, Romney said for the first time that he "probably" would do so in April, a conditional concession that could help defuse a rising issue.
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"Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see where you made your money," Texas Gov. Rick Perry demanded in the debate's opening minutes. "We can't fire our nominee in September. We need to know now" whether a contender is "a flawed candidate."
Later, Romney stopped just short of promising to do so. "I think I've heard enough from folks" about the issue, he said, saying previous nominees generally had done so in April, the month when tax returns are due. "That's probably what I would do," he said.
Of course, by then he hopes to have the nomination in hand.
For nearly two hours, Romney had to defend his record on abortion, his views on gun rights, his relationship to the super PAC supporting his candidacy and his history as CEO of the private equity firm Bain Capital. His rivals saw this debate and another scheduled for Thursday as perhaps their last, best chances to blunt his momentum from victories in this month's Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
If the Palmetto State primary Saturday makes it three in a row, even former House speaker Newt Gingrich says it would be hard to deny the former Massachusetts governor the nomination.
That's one reason the debate — hosted by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the South Carolina GOP — featured a series of sharp exchanges, including among those trying to prevail as the challenger to Romney. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Gingrich clashed on what to do about the Social Security system, and both differed with Texas Rep. Ron Paul on foreign policy.
The audience contributed to the general tumult by clapping, cheering and booing in approval and disapproval.
Paul was put on the defensive for suggesting international law had been violated when U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden's compound and killed him. Amid boos from the audience, Paul said he wasn't against killing bin Laden but that when possible, international law should be followed.
"My point is if another country does to us what we do to others, we are not going to like it very much," he said. "Maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy: Don't do to other nations what we don't want happening to us." He said bin Laden should have been arrested and put on trial.
Romney and Perry disagreed, and Gingrich called Paul's views "utterly irrational."
It was Romney who was at the center of most of the attacks. He generally kept his cool, responding calmly to criticism from Gingrich and Perry and touting his record in business, as governor and as head of the Salt Lake City Olympics.
"My record is out there; proud of it," he said, saying he could assure voters he was someone who "understood how the economy works."
Still, he responded icily in an exchange with Santorum about attack ads being aired by a pro-Romney "super PAC" called Restore Our Future.
"Gov. Romney's super PAC has put an ad out there suggesting that I voted to allow felons to be able to vote for president, because they said I allowed felons to vote," Santorum said heatedly. "I would ask Gov. Romney, do you believe people who are felons, who've served their time, who've exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?"
Romney began by denying he controlled the ads, financed by a group that election laws require be independent, when Santorum interrupted to demand he answer his question.
"We have plenty of time. I'll get there," Romney replied brusquely. "I'll do it in the order I want to do."
When he said he opposed giving those who had committed violent crimes the right to vote, Santorum shot back that Massachusetts law when Romney was governor did just that, and he didn't try to change it.
"Not only could violent felons vote after they exhausted their sentences, but they could vote when they were on probation and parole," Santorum said.
After the debate, Santorum told reporters that if Romney wanted to stop his super PAC from running an ad he would. "That's what presidents do," he said. "They stand up; they take responsibility."
For his part, Gingrich defended his criticism of Romney's record at Bain Capital, which sometimes bought companies and laid off workers. Romney cites his business experience, Gingrich noted: "If that's part of your campaign, then questioning it is equally legitimate."
In the parking lot outside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, anti-Romney fliers were left on car windshields. "If you've been laid off, you've already met Mitt Romney," one read.

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