GOP Rivals Ratchet Up Intensity In S.C. Debate

Under heavy pressure from his rivals, front-runner Mitt Romney defended his record as a venture capitalist. He also insisted he bears no responsibility for attack ads aired by his allies, and grudgingly said he might release his income tax returns this spring.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: And I'm Renee Montagne. The scene of last night's Republican presidential debate was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It's a resort city known for golf courses, and the Republican field is almost small enough now to form a gulfing foursome.

INSKEEP: Almost, though not quite. Five candidates remain after Jon Huntsman withdrew. You could think of it as a foursome of challengers chasing Mitt Romney at the top of the leader board.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Fireworks erupted outside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center last night, a hint at what was happening inside. Just before the debate, Rick Santorum announced a new ad campaign criticizing Mitt Romney for being too much like President Obama. During the debate, the former Pennsylvania senator complained about an ad from a pro-Romney group, targeting him. The ad suggests Santorum would allow felons to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK SANTORUM: I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe people who are felons who served their time, should they be given the right to vote?

MITT ROMNEY: First of all, as you know, the PACs that run ads on various candidates, as we unfortunately know in this country...

SANTORUM: I'm looking for a question - an answer to the question first.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Pressed by Santorum for an answer, Romney said he does not believe violent felons should be allowed to vote. Santorum then asked why Romney hadn't tried to change the law when he was governor of Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SANTORUM: The law was that 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 than I took when I voted for the bill in the Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Santorum, who finished just eight votes behind Romney in Iowa two weeks ago, is hoping to capitalize on a weekend endorsement from leading social conservatives to mount a convincing challenge to the frontrunner.

Texas Governor Rick Perry also took on Romney, over his financial background as a private equity investor, suddenly reminding voters of Romney's awkward comment – that he likes being able to fire people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK PERRY: Mitt, we need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you made your money.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PERRY: I think that's a fair thing. Listen, here's the real issue for us. As Republicans, we cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.

HORSLEY: Up until now, Romney's been reluctant to release his tax records. He did not exactly promise to do so last night, but says he probably will on or about tax day, April 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: 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 about April of the coming year and that's probably what I'd do.

HORSLEY: Texas Congressman Ron Paul continues to stand out from the Republican pack for his isolationist views on foreign policy, and for his eagerness to cut military spending. Paul argued last night such cuts would not necessarily hurt the economy here in South Carolina, which is home to more than half a dozen major military bases.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RON PAUL: I want to cut money, overseas money. That's what I want to do. I want to cut military money. I don't want to cut defense money. I want to bring the troops home. I'd probably have more bases here at home.

HORSLEY: Paul drew boos for questioning the U.S. raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked if he'd authorize a similar unilateral strike in order to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Gingrich, as he often does, cited history as his guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: Kill them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: The format for last night's debate allowed more time for answers, and with fewer candidates that made for some lively discussion of topics like Social Security. Gingrich outlined his plan to let young people open private retirement accounts, while Romney suggested raising the eligibility age for future retirees.

Santorum warned Gingrich's plan would add too much to the deficit and said the Romney plan is too timid, since it would leave Social Security unchanged for everyone over 55.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SANTORUM: There's 60,000 people in this country who are earning over $1 million a year as a senior and he's saying, no, let's not touch them. I'm saying, yes. We should absolutely do something about people who don't need Social Security when we're borrowing money from China to pay those millionaires.

HORSLEY: Republicans have one more debate before Saturday, and the primary many expect will determine how much longer the GOP nominating contest will go on.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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