Gov. Rick Perry was among the Republican candidates who attacked front-runner Mitt Romney's record as a private businessman pivotal weekend primary in South Carolina.
Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum criticized Romney in the first of a pair of debates in the run-up to this weekend's first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina.
Perry and Gingrich led the assault against Romney's record at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that bought companies and sought to remake them into more competitive enterprises.
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 said, but he offered no specifics.
Perry also challenged Romney, a multimillionaire, to release his income tax returns. The 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," Perry said.
Later, a debate moderator pressed Romney on releasing his tax returns.
His 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."
The five 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.
The congressman, who represents the 14th Congressional District of Texas, was grilled on his position on military spending. He has called for closing bases overseas and reducing spending on what he calls the military industrial complex.
Paul said he wants to protect military jobs domestically and insists there's a difference between military spending and a strong national defense.
Paul said conservatives should insist on cutting spending on military projects, not just domestic spending. He said overseas military spending should be cut before trimming federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployment.
Perry blasted the Obama administration for intruding on states' rights.
The governor said the state "is at war with this federal government and this administration."
He criticized the Obama administration for slapping down South Carolina's voter identification law, which would require voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot. He also objected to the Justice Department suing the state over its tough immigration law.
Perry said the most egregious example of federal government overreach was the National Labor Relations Board intervening in a right to work state. He was referring to a ruling against Boeing, which moved production from Washington to South Carolina.
Perry called the federal actions "irresponsible" and "unconstitutional."
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 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.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Columbia and Beth Fouhy in Myrtle Beach contributed to this report.
|Tracking Rick Perry:
For the latest on Rick Perry's run for the White House, click here to see our special Tracking Rick Perry section. View videos, photos, and stories on the Texas governor's presidential run.