By DAVID ESPO, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Under heavy debate pressure from his rivals, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney defended his record as a venture capitalist, insisted he bears no responsibility for attack ads aired by his allies and grudgingly said Monday night he might release his income tax returns this spring.
"I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so," he said. "I sort of feel like we're showing a lot of exposure at this point," he added in an apparent reference to the campaign to come against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney came under criticism from the opening moments of the debate, the first of two in the run-up to this weekend's first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina. The former Massachusetts governor won the first two events of the campaign, the Iowa caucuses and last week's New Hampshire primary, and leads in the pre-primary polls in South Carolina.
One of his rivals, Newt Gingrich, has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in South Carolina would assure his nomination as Obama's Republican rival in the fall, and none of the other remaining contenders has challenged that conclusion.
That only elevated the stakes for Monday night's debate, feisty from the outset as Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sought to knock Romney off stride while generally being careful to wrap their criticism in anti-Obama rhetoric.
"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," said Gingrich.
The five men on stage also sought to outdo one another in calling for lower taxes.
Paul won that competition handily, saying he thought the top rate should be zero.
And in a state with a heavy military presence, the tone seemed more aggressive than in earlier debates.
Gingrich drew strong applause when he said: "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear idea about America's enemies. Kill them."
The debate began hours after Romney reaped an endorsement from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who suspended his own candidacy and urged the remaining contenders to stop attacking one another for fear it might benefit Obama in November.
The former House speaker and Perry led the assault against Romney's record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought companies and sought to remake them into more competitive enterprises, with uneven results.
"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 acknowledged.
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."
Later, a debate moderator pressed Romney on releasing his tax returns.
The answer was anything but crisp.
"But you know if that's been the tradition I'm not opposed to doing that. Time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I'm going to get asked to do that in the April time period and I'll keep that open," he said.
Prodded again, he said, "I think I've heard enough from folks saying look, you know, let's see your tax records. I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so. I sort of feel like we're showing a lot of exposure at this point, and if I become our nominee and what's happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year and that's probably what I'd do."
Santorum stayed away from the clash over taxes, instead starting a dispute 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 violent 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 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.
Romney added that the millions in outside dollars are "one of the things I decry" about the current system. At the same time, he has repeatedly refused to denounce the negative ads that the group supporting him has been spending millions to run in early states.
"It is inaccurate," Santorum said of the ad assailing him, seeking the last word. "I would go out and say, `Stop it. That you're representing me and you're representing my campaign. Stop it.'"
The five remaining candidates also sought to outdo one another in calling for lower taxes.
Paul won that competition handily, saying he thought the top rate should be zero.
Romney has victories in the only two contests of the campaign thus far, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary earlier this month. Gingrich has conceded that the former Massachusetts governor will likely be the party's nominee if he is similarly victorious in South Carolina, an assertion that none of the others in the race has so far contested.
That raised the significance of the night's debate, as well as another one scheduled for Thursday in Charleston.
Romney is the leader in the public opinion polls in South Carolina, although his rivals hope the state's high, 9.9 percent unemployment rate and the presence of large numbers of socially conservative evangelical voters will allow one of them to slip by him.
Huntsman was the second campaign dropout to endorse Romney, after former Minnesota Gov. Tom Pawlenty. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who quit after a last-place finish in Iowa, has not yet said which of the remaining contenders she supports. Herman Cain, who left the race in December after facing allegations of sexual impropriety, has promised an endorsement soon.
Huntsman's parting announcement included a reference to the differences he and Romney had. But he left the podium without responding to questions about his remark last week, in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, that Romney was unelectable and out of touch.
It was unclear why Romney did not attend the announcement. He was in town for a later campaign appearance and then the debate.
Gingrich and Perry both began their day at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance, where they praised the legacy of the slain civil right leader.
At about the same time, Santorum was complaining that attacks launched against him by the political action committee supporting Romney were lies. The attack on Santorum is patterned after one that helped send Gingrich into a nosedive in the polls in the final weeks of the Iowa caucus campaign.
Gingrich made similar demands on Romney then to rein in his supporters, but was ignored.
Paul, who generally keeps a light campaign schedule, addressed the Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in the afternoon. The Texas congressman cast his libertarian message in religious terms, noting the Bible speaks up for private property ownership and sound currency.
Below, HuffPost's live blog coverage of all the developments to unfold in South Carolina.
Newt Gingrich approached Mitt Romney on stage after the debate with a proposal: All of the GOP candidates should draft a letter to Congress suggesting campaign legislation that would allow people to donate unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns, with the caveat that they must disclose the donation that same day.
Romney had voiced support for similar campaign finance reform earlier in the debate. Gingrich mentioned the post-debate exchange in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, who did not ask how Romney responded.
Such a move would be the logical conclusion of the Supreme Court's party line Citizens United ruling and the final evisceration of 100 years of campaign finance regulation.
-- Ryan Grim
I have to say, it's almost farcical listening to various candidates admit that the ads their close personal friends are running via super PACs are full of falsehoods, profess a "hope" that their friends will either take down or edit these ads, and then fall back on the excuse that getting these close friends on the phone is a violation of the law that precludes "coordination" with the super PACs. In my mind, nuking a super PAC's efforts from space doesn't exactly fit the conventional definition of "coordination."
But if it constitutes coordination, so what? By these candidates' own admission, it would be the right thing to do. If the law prevents someone from doing the right thing, then the law is, as they say, "an ass," and it deserves to be tested. I would be happy to vigorously defend any efforts from Mitt Romney and/or Newt Gingrich to actively prevent the super PACs that support them from telling lies on their behalf. Who wouldn't?
Someone, I guess, needs to be the Rosa Parks of standing up to super PACs.
-- Jason Linkins
In a sign of either desperation, a shortage of surrogates, or a bit of excitement over his debate performance, Newt Gingrich chose to go to the spin room and do his own post-debate messaging.
A picture, from The Huffington Post's Jon Ward, is: here.
-- Sam Stein
supported government funding for abortion was "explicitly a falsehood," since there was already a policy in place that prevented any government funds from being used toward abortions.
"The Mexico City policy said no U.S. funding will be used to fund any activity that relates to abortion, so it is explicitly a falsehood to suggest that a bill introduced under Mexico City policy would have paid for China's one-child policy," he said. "I have a 98.6 percent National Right to Life voting record in 20 years. And the only vote we disagreed on was welfare reform, which has nothing to do with abortion."
In fact, the bill Gingrich co-sponsored with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did propose money for the United Nations Population Fund, but it stated specifically that its funding could not be used for "involuntary sterilization or abortion or to coerce any person to accept family planning."
Gingrich demanded that Romney acknowledge the falsehood, and called his opponent's leadership skills into question.
"I think it is an absurdity, and it would be nice if Romney would exercise leadership on his former staff and his major donors to take falsehoods off the air."
But Romney instead relinquished responsibility, saying that he has no control over his super PAC's ads and that he thinks super PACs should be done away with altogether.
-- Laura Bassett
Speaking to Sean Hannity after the debate, GOP pollster Frank Luntz said one of the most noteworthy moments during the debate was when Newt Gingrich received a standing ovation: "I've never seen it in a debate. [I've been watching] debates now for 16 years -- a standing ovation in the middle of a debate. ... Newt Gingrich got a standing ovation, and he did so fighting with your own Juan Williams over the whole welfare issue."
-- Amanda Terkel
Texas Gov. Rick Perry promised on Monday to secure the border between the United States and Mexico, no matter the cost, in response to a question about whether those funds could be better used elsewhere.
"Americans want that border to be secure," he said. "The issue isn't about how much is it going to cost, the issue is when are you going to get it done. And when I'm the president of the United States, that border will be locked down and it will be secure by one year from the time I take my hand off the Bible."
Moderator Kelly Evans of the Wall Street Journal said that since border crossings are at a 40-year low and undocumented immigration is down, additional funds could be directed at infrastructure. Perry quipped that it is likely because the economy is "probably at a 40-year-low."
He said that more money should be spent on "strategic fencing," thousands of National Guard troops, and predator drones on the border.
"Securing the border" is a phrase with no clear definition, and it is uncertain what level of security Perry would require to declare victory in that category, because all of the candidates are dismissive of the government's current definition.
"The idea that Americans don't want us to spend the money to secure that border is flat-out false," he said. "We're going to secure the border with Mexico."
-- Elise Foley
Mitt Romney addressed, for what seemed to be the first time, the "King of Bain" documentary being run by a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.
"It's probably the biggest hoax since big foot," he said of the 28-minute film.
The film is, indeed, filled with mistruths and deeply out-of-context accusations. And the film's creators seemed to do their cause a bit of a disservice by reaching so far from the actual story for hits on Romney -- moving the conversation away from his private equity career and instead on the accuracy of the documentary and the dangers of super PACs.
-- Sam Stein
|@ howardfineman : Boffo final answer for conservatives by Newt on education-power devolution. Newt showed once again his mastery of this form. His best yet.|
Mitt Romney tried to reassure the conservative crowd that he was in favor of strong gun rights, but he had to admit that he was not as avid of a hunter as others on the stage.
"I enjoy the sport," he said.
When asked if he had been hunting since 2007, Romney momentarily confused elk and moose.
"I'm not going to describe all of my great exploits," he replied. "I went moose hunting -- not moose hunting, I'm sorry -- elk hunting with friends in Montana and been pheasant hunting. I'm not the great hunter that some on this stage -- Rick Perry, my guess is you are a serious hunter. I'm not a serious hunter, but I must admit I enjoy the sport, and when I get invited I'm delighted to be able to go hunting."
-- Amanda Terkel
|@ howardfineman : hard to believe that any of these candidates really are outraged by renegade superpacs. one reason is that they really aren't renegade.|
|@ howardfineman : "The biggest hoax since bigfoot," says mItt about the pro-Newt documentary. "I think it should be edited," answers Newt.|
|@ jonward11 : Romney says of King of Bain movie: "It's prob the biggest hoax since bigfoot."|
|@ howardfineman : Kaboom! Newt says that Romney claims to have no influence over the pro-Mitt superpac, which makes u wonder what clout he'd have as president|
Gov. Rick Perry, unprompted, offered an impassioned criticism of the Obama administration for condemning U.S. marines who urinated on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.
"These young men made a mistake," he said, without actually having been asked to address the recent controversy. "They made a mistake that the military needs to deal with, and they need to be punished."
But the fact of the matter is this: When the secretary of defense calls that a despicable act, when he calls that utterly despicable, let me tell you what is utterly despicable: cutting Danny Pearl's head off and showing the video, hanging our contractors from bridges, that's utterly despicable. For our president, for the secretary of state, for the Department of Defense secretary to make those kinds of statements about those young marines, yes they need to be punished, but when you see this president with that type of disdain for our country, taking a trillion dollars out of our defense budget, a hundred thousand of our military off of our front lines? I lived through a reduction of forces once and I saw the results of it in the sands of Iran in 1979.
It stands to reason, from the answer, that Perry would not have verbally reprimanded soldiers for urinating on dead Taliban fighters. It's his prerogative, and it's worth noting that the same sort of fault lines occurred when U.S. guards were reportedly mishandling Qurans at Gitmo.
The reference to Daniel Pearl, however, rubbed friends of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter the wrong way. John Harwood, now at The New York Times, tweeted: "As someone who was a friend and colleague of Danny Pearl...Perry's reference to Danny was irrelevant and gross."
It's also not entirely clear what Perry was getting at when he tied Iran in 1979 to a reduction of U.S. forces -- save, perhaps, that he believes there would have been no Islamic Revolution if there was a threat of American intervention. It should be noted either way that the Department of Defense budget has drastically increased since then.
-- Sam Stein
|@ howardfineman : #scdebate scorecard for this conservative crowd: Newt 9.3; Perry, 7.2; Mitt 6.7 (until hunting answer, now 6.2); Santorum 5.1; Paul 0.2.|
Republicans on the stage argued over block grants and social policy, echoing a theme of previous debates. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have long been calling for social programs such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid to be block granted and reformed much as welfare was in the '90s.
For a look at how badly that went, check out The Huffington Post reporter Zach Carter's piece from last week.
-- Ryan Grim
|@ howardfineman : Mitt, Santorum agree Newt's "Chilean model" individual Social Security accounts will cost a ton to get going and are "fiscal insanity."|
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney doubled down on Monday on his opposition to the DREAM Act, a bill that would aid undocumented young people and that is heavily supported by the Latino community.
"I've indicated I would veto the DREAM Act if provisions included in that act say that people who were here illegally -- if they go to school here long enough, if they get a degree here -- then they can become permanent residents," he said, in response to a question about how his immigration views would play with Latino voters. "I think that's a mistake."
Romney previously said he would veto the bill to provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants as long as they came to the U.S. as children, kept a clean criminal record and either attended college or joined the military.
The bill has languished in Congress for more than a decade despite bipartisan support, and is considered a step toward the larger effort of comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans have supported the measure in the past because it applies only to those brought to the United States as children and who served in the military or went to college.
Romney's statements on the DREAM Act have been controversial, earning him ire from some Republican Latino groups. Some Republican strategists have said he should tamp down his immigration statements if he wants to win Latino voters, who will be important in Florida and, moving forward, in the general election.
Romney said that aiding those eligible under the DREAM Act would only encourage more people to enter the country without documentation. He has said he opposes any paths to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, whom he said should instead return to their native countries and apply for legal reentry.
"I think we have to follow the law and insist that those that have come here illegally return home and apply -- get in line with everyone else," he said.
Under current law, many undocumented immigrants face a three- or 10-year bar for reentering the United States after they leave, and long wait times make it difficult, if not impossible, to return, even if they have citizen spouses or children residing in the country.
Romney said he "loves legal immigration," but declined to go into details. He has said previously that paths to legal status should be made easier for high-skilled immigrants.
He finished his discussion on immigration on Monday by saying border security should be the first priority. That issue, too, is somewhat controversial among Latino voters.
In a recent poll from Univision and Latino Decisions, 66 percent of Latinos polled said they believe Republicans who say the border must be "secured" before any immigration policy changes are actually trying to block reform.
-- Elise Foley
|@ jim_newell : Can you imagine if a Dem prez candidate pointed out that he was a professor and/or historian in every statement. Can you imagine this.|
|@ JohnJHarwood : As someone who was a friend and colleague of Danny Pearl...Perry's reference to Danny was irrelevant and gross|
|@ jonward11 : Santorum trying to create some energy, but talking social security is not exactly dry tinder|
Mitt Romney said he supported the National Defense Authorization Act and the provision allowing the president to indefinitely detain American citizens in custody.
"Yes, I would have," said Romney when asked whether he would have signed the legislation as President Obama did. Members of the crowd -- most likely supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who believes the bill is unconstitutional -- booed him.
"I do believe it is appropriate to have in our nation the capacity to detain people who are threats to this country, who are members of al Qaeda. Look, you have every right in this country to protest and to express your views on a wide range of issues, but you don't have a right to join a group that has challenged America and has threatened killing Americans, has killed Americans, and has declared war against America. That's treason. In this country we have a right to take those people and put them in jail."
The crowd loudly applauded this response.
Romney then said that while he disagreed with Obama on most matters, he would give him the benefit of the doubt not to abuse the powers in the NDAA.
"I recognize that in a setting where they are enemy combatants and some of them on our own soil, that could be abused," he said. "There are lots of things I think this president does wrong -- lots of them -- but I don't think he will abuse this power, and if I were president I would not abuse this power."
Other members of the crowd again booed Romney.
-- Amanda Terkel
|@ MSignorile : Entire exchange underscores how Bush/Obama policies on civil liberties have melded: Romney booed for defending Obama. Santorum disagrees.|
Juan Williams asked Newt Gingrich to respond to criticism he's received regarding his proposal to have poor children work as janitors in their schools and his characterization of Obama as the "food stamp" president. An amped-up crowd very quickly turned on Williams, and treated Gingrich to the most sustained applause of the night.
"Do you see how these remarks might offend people?" Williams asked.
Newt replied, "No, I don't see that." He then defended his position, citing anecdotal accounts of young people who prospered as janitors, or as doughnut deliverers. Gingrich went on to say that he got the idea from a Joe Klein article about New York City schools, which is true.
"Only the elites despise earning money," Gingrich said. But as Benjy Sarlin points out, if you hired 30 kids for one janitor contract, those kids wouldn't be able to form an emotional attachment to earning money, because they wouldn't earn very much.
Median salary for janitor in US is ,529. Newt says you can hire 30 kids for that. So 817 bucks a year each? #scdebate— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) January 17, 2012
Williams went on, citing a reaction Gingrich received at the Jones Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Columbia (background here). Gingrich immediately swung back, insisting that "more people have been put on food stamps by Obama than any other president in American History."
"I'm going to continue to help poor people learn to get a job, learn to get a better job, and eventually learn to own the job."
Newt received a standing ovation.
-- Jason Linkins
|@ howardfineman : Santorum supports habeas corpus for american citizens. He's right -- and so is Paul -- that the new law signed by Obama destroys that right.|
After Rep. Paul equivocated slightly over whether or not he would have given the order to take out Osama bin Laden, stressing that he would rather capture him and cautioning against infringing on another country's sovereignty, Newt Gingrich pounced.
"He's not a Chinese dissident," the former speaker said, picking up a thread of the argument Paul had made about the need to respect civil liberties. "The analogy Congressman Paul used was utterly irrational."
This is a common dispute between the two GOP candidates, who stand at truly opposite ends of the GOP's foreign policy pole. But the South Carolina debate crowd was clearly in Gingrich's corner. They practically jumped out of their seats when he concluded with the following line: "Andrew Jackson had a pretty good idea about America's enemies: kill them."
After garbling his first go at the topic, Paul stuck to his usual campaign script on the second. "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... We endlessly bombed these countries and we wonder why they get upset with us and it continues on and on."
-- Sam Stein
|@ andreastonez : Mitt defends Obama and gets booed. Audience itching for more red meat from Newt #scdebate|
|@ ryangrim : Romney weirdly frames taking rights away as a right: "We have a right to take those people and put them in jail." So entitled!|
|@ LEBassett : Perry: Obama admin. criticizing marines for urinating on ppl they killed shows disdain for our men and women in uniform|