The Republican candidates before their debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on… (David Goldman / Associated…)
Reporting from Myrtle Beach, S.C. — In one of the most sustained batterings he has endured in the 2012 presidential primary debates, Mitt Romney was repeatedly put on the defensive over his business and government record and the attack ads by his supporters that are swamping South Carolina's airwaves.
The former Massachusetts governor's rivals have been increasingly desperate to derail his front-running candidacy as Romney looks to put a virtual lock on the Republican nomination in Saturday's primary.
Rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both took aim at Romney, landing blows that, despite hitting their mark, may have canceled out either candidate's chances of emerging Monday night as Romney's key challenger.
Together the opponents sought to argue that Romney lacked principles, was exercising an unfair advantage through a "super PAC" created by his former aides, and was hiding his income taxes to deflect criticism.
Santorum delivered one of the first blows, laying a trap for Romney about voting rights for prisoners. A super PAC supporting Romney has been running ads accusing Santorum of backing the right of felons to vote from prison — a charge the former Pennsylvania senator said was false.
Santorum defended his Senate vote, saying the measure he supported was aimed at restoring voting rights for criminals who had served their time and finished their probation and parole requirements. He noted that Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and that the criminal population disproportionately included African Americans. He pressed Romney about whether he supported such a measure.
Romney said he did not believe that people who had committed violent crimes should ever be allowed to vote, leading Santorum to parry that when Romney was governor, violent felons in Massachusetts could vote even while they were on probation and parole.
"If in fact you felt so passionately about this that you were now going to go out and have somebody criticize me for restoring voting rights to people who have ... exhausted their sentence and served their time and paid their debt to society, then why didn't you try to change that when you were governor of Massachusetts?" Santorum said.
Romney responded that his state's Legislature was 85% Democratic, and he went on to criticize the existence of super PACs, although he has benefited the most from their existence this election cycle.
"We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth," he said later in the debate. "Wouldn't it be nice if people could give what they'd like to campaigns and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them?"
Gingrich criticized Romney's inability to get his supporters' super PAC to remove an ad that distorts Gingrich's position on abortion. He said it "makes you wonder how much influence he'd have if he were president" — a line that drew hoots of approval from the audience.
Romney shot back that Gingrich's supporters were running an ad replete with erroneous charges about his business record that is "probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot."
With his experience as co-founder of a private equity firm, Bain Capital, under attack, Romney said for the first time that he would "probably" release his tax returns later this year if it was apparent he would be the nominee.
Gingrich defended his assaults on Romney's business record, which includes job losses at some companies Bain invested in, and what Gingrich called a pattern of loading a "handful" of companies with debt, after which they went broke.
To applause, the former House speaker said that questioning Romney's record in private business was "exactly what campaigns ought to be about. And 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."
One of the debate panelists, Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal, asked Romney about American Pad and Paper, a company that went bankrupt, costing hundreds of people their jobs, while Bain Capital took out $100 million in profits and fees.
Romney said the company was caught in a shrinking industry and some of those who lost jobs were union workers who didn't want to transfer to a nonunion plant. And he pushed back against the notion that he practiced a particularly harsh brand of capitalism.
"I know that people are going to come after me. I know President Obama is going to come after me. But the record is pretty darn good," Romney said.
"If people want to have someone who understands how the economy works, having worked in the real economy, then I'm the guy that can best post up against Barack Obama," Romney said to cheers from supporters in the crowd at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.