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.”