- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2012

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Mitt Romney’s opponents in the Republican presidential primary pounced Monday night, demanding the former Massachusetts governor release his income tax forms, halt misleading attacks coming from his supporters, and explain his job-creating record as each man sought to establish himself as the chief alternative in the race.

Along the way Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the leaders of Turkey “Islamic terrorists” who should be stripped of U.S. aid. And Rep. Ron Paul said the income tax rate should be cut to zero, and called for a golden rule in international relations that would have kept the U.S. from assassinating Osama bin Laden.

The debate came just days before South Carolina’s make-or-break primary on Saturday, and the pressure showed as Mr. Romney faced off against the four other candidates who are jockeying to become the go-to alternative for conservatives in the election.

It also saw a battle between Fox News panelist Juan Williams and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who Mr. Williams said seemed to be belittling black Americans when he called President Obama the “food-stamp president” and encouraged poor youths to take jobs as janitors.

Mr. Gingrich didn’t back down, saying more people received food stamps under Mr. Obama than any other president, and facetiously apologized because “I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

“I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. 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 someday to own the job,” he said.

The audience erupted into a standing ovation and chants of “Newt! Newt!” as the moderators went to a commercial.

The debate, aired on Fox News Channel and co-sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and the South Carolina Republican Party, came less than 12 hours after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. dropped out of the race, leaving the field to Mr. Romney and the other four candidates seeking to be the alternative to Mr. Romney.

They jumped at the chance, repeatedly firing charges at him.

In what appeared to be a planned ambush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said voters deserve to see Mr. Romney’s tax forms — papers he has declined to release. They are not required to be disclosed under campaign laws, but most candidates eventually do release them.

Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you make your money,” Mr. Perry said. “As Republicans we cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now. So I hope you’ll put your tax records out there this week.”

Moments after it, Mr. Perry’s campaign emailed out a prepared statement pointing to his own tax returns, and pointing to Mr. Romney’s own call in his 1994 Senate campaign for his then-opponent Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to release his tax forms.

Mr. Romney didn’t respond until the panelists later demanded he do so. He said he’d wait and see in April, which is when he said most nominees have released their tax forms.

“I’ll keep that open,” he said, though he assured voters, “I have nothing in them that suggests any problem.”

He also defended himself vehemently when his opponents questioned his economic record as head of Bain Capital, which he has held up as the centerpiece of his credentials for creating a stronger economy as president.

Mr. Romney said he expects the attacks but said “the record is pretty darn good.”

He acknowledged, under pressure from Mr. Perry about a South Carolina steel mill, that some companies in which Bain had invested had closed, but he blamed the steel-plant closing on unfair foreign competition from countries such as China.

At one point former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has been under attack by a group backing Mr. Romney over a 2002 Senate vote that would have allowed felons to vote in presidential elections once they have completed their sentences, fired back, demanding to know Mr. Romney’s stance.

Mr. Romney began to answer another part of the question and Mr. Santorum jumped.

“I asked you a question, answer the question first,” the former senator said.

Mr. Romney peevishly responded: “We have plenty of time, I’ll get there. I’ll do it in the order I want.”

The former Massachusetts governor said he does not want to allow violent felons ever to regain their voting rights — though he did not get his state to change its permissive laws, which let felons vote once they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole or probation.

Mr. Santorum was one of just three Senate Republicans in 2002 — including Sen. Arlen Specter, who later fled the GOP to become a Democrat — to vote for the amendment, which would have imposed the new rules on all states for federal elections. It would have overturned laws in about a dozen states.

Mr. Santorum pointed to yesterday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and said he was trying to help black Americans.

“The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill. And this was a provision that said — particularly targeted to African-Americans, and I voted to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence,” he said.

That prompted Mr. Perry to say the federal government had no business telling the states how to handle the issue in the first place.

“Leave the states alone,” he said.

Mr. Paul outdid the rest of the field when it came to lowering the income tax rate, calling for it to be dropped to zero.

He also came under fire when he proposed the U.S. should follow a “golden rule” internationally.

“We endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?” he said.

That drew loud boos from the audience.

And he took aim at the rest of the field, at one point regretting his ad attacking Mr. Santorum was too short and he wanted to expand his attacks over Mr. Santorum’s support for labor unions and his votes for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug bill.

“My only regret is that I couldn’t get enough in in that one minute that I should have,” he said.

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