Nothing about the equation for the GOP presidential nomination changed as a result of the debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Mitt Romney is still the overwhelming favorite--and, if anything, strong debate performances by both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum only increased the chances that the two will fracture the social conservative vote in the state primary, handing victory to Romney later this week.
But that doesn’t mean Romney had a good night. After a strong start, when the candidate effectively batted away questions about his work for Bain Capital, the private equity and buyout firm his rivals have said destroyed jobs, Romney continually found himself on the defensive and sometimes gave muddled answers.
Romney, at times, can be a different candidate when pushed out of his comfort zone and his rockiest debate moments have come when the unexpected arrives. Here’s a look at a few of Romney’s toughest moments from the debate:
1) Santorum’s 'super PAC’ trap. Santorum artfully laid a trap by confronting him over a pro-Romney super PAC ad that suggested that Santorum supported voting rights for felons. Santorum, who tied the issue to the African American community (on Martin Luther King Day no less) pressed Romney to give his position on the issue. After Romney haltingly responded by saying that felons convicted of violent crimes shouldn’t be allowed to vote, Santorum sprung:
“That's very interesting that you say that, Gov. Romney, because in the state of Massachusetts, when you were governor, the law was that not only could violent felons vote after they had exhausted their sentences, but they could vote while they were on probation and parole. If in fact you felt so passionately about this, that you are 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?"
Romney replied that as governor, he had to contend with a legislature that was 85% Democratic and went on to say that he couldn’t control super PACs running ads in his name (more on that later). Santorum won the round by making Romney appear to be halfhearted and free-floating on the issue. At the same time, however, voting rights for felons isn’t likely an issue that’s going to move primary voters away from Romney and most conservatives are likely to agree with him on the issue, not Santorum.
2) Releasing his tax returns. Rick Perry, who showed more fire in the belly than usual Monday night, but for whom the bell is seriously tolling, urged Romney early on to release his tax returns “so the people of this country can see how you made your money.” The boisterous crowd at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center cheered. “Listen, here's the real issue for us, as Republicans, we cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now. So I hope you'll put your tax records out there this week so the people of South Carolina can take a look and decide if, you know, we've got a flawed candidate or not,” Perry said.
Later in the debate, Romney was asked specifically whether he would release his returns -- and while he ultimately suggested that he would “probably” release them, he took a tortured path to getting to that answer, all while leaving his options open:
“You know, I looked at what has been done in campaigns in the past with Sen. [John] McCainand President George W. Bush and others. They have tended to release tax records in April or tax season. I hadn't planned on releasing tax records because the law requires us to release all of our assets, all the things we own. That I have already released. It's a pretty full disclosure. But, you know, if that's been the tradition and I'm not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I'll keep that open,” he said.
He was then pressed by moderator Kelly Evans whether he was promising to release his returns.
“I think I've heard enough from folks saying, look, 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 are 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 would do,” he said.