Candidates pile on Romney in South Carolina debate

With just five Republican presidential candidates on stage after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's departure from the race earlier that day, the candidates at Monday's Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach went hard after frontrunner Mitt Romney questioning his business record, if he supported allowing convicted felons to vote and whether he would ever release his personal tax records.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got the first shot at Romney tonight and swung for the fences. For the past few weeks, Gingrich has hammered Romney for his record as the head of private equity firm Bain Capital in the 1990s, accusing him of padding his wallet at the expense of middle class jobs. A 28-minute film produced by Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich super PAC, featured interviews with workers laid off under Bain's management. On the debate stage, Gingrich accused Romney of running companies with a pattern: leaving them "with enormous debt and then within a year or two or three having them go broke."

You can watch a clip of Romney and Gingrich sparring over super PACs below:

Gingrich, who once defined his debate presence by blasting moderators for trying to pit the candidates against each other, defended the line of attack and explained the reasons why he was now happy to answer questions about other candidates' records. "I raise questions that I think are legitimate questions," he said. "I think that's what part of a campaign is about is to raise questions and see whether or not your competitor can answer them effectively before you get to a general election where you know those questions are going to be asked."

Romney knew it was coming. "Some of the businesses we invested in weren't successful and lost jobs, and I'm very proud of the fact that we learned from the experience," he said. "We invested in well over 100 businesses, and the people have looked at the places that have added jobs and lost jobs and that record is pretty much available for people to take a close look at. But my record as the governor of Massachusetts and as the person who led the Olympics flowed from the fact that I had experience turning around tough situations."

When asked to weigh in on the discussion about Romney's business practices, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also a harsh critic of Romney's record at Bain, was asked to name the regulations on venture capital he would support. He declined to answer, instead calling on Romney to release his tax returns--another charge the frontrunner was expecting.

"I think I've heard enough from folks saying, look, let's see your tax records," Romney said. "I have nothing in them that suggests there's any problem and I'm happy to do so. ... 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 would do."

"My income taxes have been out every year," Perry said. "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," Perry added. "We need to know now."

You can watch a clip of the candidates debating appropriate tax rates below:

When given the opportunity, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum jumped into the Romney pile-on by calling out a pro-Romney super PAC for releasing an ad that criticized Santorum for his support of a bill that let convicted felons vote once they had served their time. Santorum hit back, saying he felt that people who served their time should be allowed to vote and pressing Romney on his own position.

You can watch a clip of Santorum going after Romney over felons below:

"This is Martin Luther King Day," Santorum said, interrupting Romney when he tried to defend himself. "This is a huge deal in the African American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration--disproportionally high rates particularly with drug crimes within the African American community."

Romney held firm on his position. "I don't think people who have committed violent crimes should be able to vote again," Romney replied. "That's my view."

But Santorum had set a classic debate trap: while Romney was governor of Massachusetts, the state allowed felons to vote, even while on probation.

"It's very interesting you should say that, Governor Romney," Santorum said. "Because in the state of Massachusetts, when you were governor, the law was not only could violent felons vote after they exhausted their sentences, but they could vote while they were on probation and parole, which was a more liberal position I took when I voted for the bill in the Congress."

One of the most dramatic moments of the debate, however, came when Fox News commentator Juan Williams pressed Gingrich on his plan to replace unionized school janitors in public schools with students, asking Gingrich to comment on the charge that his comments were "insulting to all Americans, particularly to black Americans."

"No," Gingrich said. "I don't see that."

Williams pressed further, charging that Gingrich's comments could be construed as being "intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities."

"So here's my point," Gingrich concluded, his voice rising. "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 to get a better job and learn some day to own the job."

You can watch a clip of Gingrich's thoughts on the poor and jobs below:

The debate will set the tone for the next week of campaigning in the Palmetto State, where current polls show Gingrich within 8 percentage points of Romney. Whatever the candidates' complaints about nasty messaging funded by super PACs, there will be no shortage of ads bombarding South Carolina's airways from now until Saturday.

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