Romney Says he May Release Tax Returns in April

Mitt RomneyMitt Romney’s four remaining challengers for
the Republican presidential nomination did their best to knock the
front-runner off stride in a contentious debate, but the best they could
do was to get him to grudgingly agree to consider releasing his tax
returns.


Romney didn’t bend
under heavy rhetorical pressure on the issue of his job-creation record
at the private equity firm Bain Capital, nor did he apologize on stage
for his evolving views on abortion. The former Massachusetts governor
stressed the independence of the super PACs that have been running
negative ads in his behalf against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
and other rivals, including former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Monday’s night’s debate was as fiery as any of the more than dozen that preceded it.

Romney
did say that while he might be willing to release his tax returns, he
wouldn’t do so until tax filing time in April. And the multimillionaire
former businessman didn’t get much gratitude from his rivals for his
halting change of heart.

“If there’s nothing there, why is he waiting `til April?” Gingrich told reporters.

Romney
at first sidestepped calls from his rivals to release his records, then
acknowledging later that he’d follow the lead of previous presidential
candidates.

“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.

Romney,
the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination after back-to-back wins
in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, was under fire from
Gingrich and fellow GOP rivals Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum in
Monday night’s debate as they sought to knock him off stride.

The
five will meet again in debate in Charleston Thursday night, the last
time they will share a stage before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.

The
first Southern primary could prove decisive in the volatile contest.
Gingrich has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in South
Carolina would assure his nomination as Democratic President Barack
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. It was feisty from
the outset, with the attacks on Romney often couched 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. Texas Rep. Ron Paul won that competition handily, saying he
thought the top personal tax rate should be zero.

In South Carolina, a state with a heavy military presence, the tone turned muscular at times.

Gingrich drew strong applause when he said: “Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear idea about America’s enemies. Kill them.”

Perry
also won favor from the crowd when he said the Obama administration had
overreacted in its criticism of the Marines who were videotaped
urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Gingrich
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 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.” And he acknowledged, “Some of the businesses we
invested in were not successful and lost jobs.”

It
was Perry who challenged Romney to release his income tax returns. The
Texas governor said he has already done so, and Gingrich has said he
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 response meandered.

“If
that’s been the tradition I’m not opposed to doing that,” Romney said.
“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.”

Prodded
again, he said, “If I become our nominee … 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.”

April is long
after the South Carolina primary and the Republican nomination could
easily be all but decided by then, following Super Tuesday contests
around the country in March.

Santorum stayed
away from the clash over taxes, instead launching 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 the former Pennsylvania senator said was more liberal than
the one he has been assailed for supporting.

Romney
replied that as a 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.

“It
is inaccurate,” Santorum said of the ad assailing him. “I would go out
and say: `Stop it. That you’re representing me and you’re representing
my campaign. Stop it.'”

That issue returned
more than an hour later, when Gingrich said he too has faced false
attacks from the same group that is criticizing Santorum. He noted that
Romney says he lacks sway over the group, “which makes you wonder how
much influence he would have if he were president.”

Romney
said he hoped no group would run inaccurate ads, and he said the
organization backing Gingrich was airing a commercial that is so false
that “it’s probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”

He
called for scuttling the current system of campaign finance laws to
permit individuals to donate as much money as they want to the
candidates of their choice.

Noting that the
debate was occurring on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one moderator asked
Gingrich if his previous statements about poor children lacking a work
ethic were “insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black
Americans.”

“No,” Gingrich said emphatically,
adding his aim was to break dependence on government programs. “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 someday to own the job,” he
said.

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.

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Associated Press writer Dave Espo contributed to this report.

Follow Shannon McCaffrey at http://www.twitter.com/smccaffrey13

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