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(Updates with Romney comment on effective rate in sixth paragraph. For more on the 2012 campaign, see ELECT.)
Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney defended his record running the private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC and suggested that he may release his tax return in April during a debate last night against rivals seeking to slow his march to the party nomination.
Facing off in the first of two debates in South Carolina this week, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Representative Ron Paul and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum battled to show themselves as the strongest alternative to Romney before the state’s Jan. 21 primary.
Perry criticized Romney for failing to release his tax returns, saying that Republicans have a right to know whether he’s a “flawed candidate.”
“As Republicans we cannot fire our nominee in September,” Perry said at the debate in Myrtle Beach, sponsored by the Fox News Channel and Wall Street Journal. “We need to know now.”
Romney, pressed on the issue by a debate moderator, said, “I’m not opposed to doing that,” and that “most likely I am going to get asked to do that” around the April tax-filing season and “I’ll keep that open.”
15 Percent Rate
This morning, he told reporters in Florence that he’d likely release his most recent return if he’s the nominee, as has been the “tradition” among those who have won the nomination in the past. Asked what effective tax rate he pays, he said “it’s probably closer to the 15 percent rate,” adding that much of his income comes from investments subject to that rate.
Last night’s forum started with a renewed back-and-forth skirmish over Bain, the Boston firm co-founded by Romney. Perry referenced a steel mill in Georgetown, South Carolina, that he said Bain had “picked over,” and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Bain left a handful of companies with “enormous debt” while the firm profited.
“The record is pretty darn good,” Romney responded, pointing to four other companies in which Bain invested that he said have created 120,000 jobs.
With less than a week before the primary, the South Carolina vote will winnow the field and may present the last opportunity for one of Romney’s rivals to emerge as a viable alternative. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. endorsed Romney yesterday, after announcing his withdrawal from the race.
As they went after Romney last night, his four remaining challengers attempted to unify the support of the core Republican primary voters in the state who support the military, lower taxes, and embrace conservative stances on issues such as abortion and gun control.
Perry accused President Barack Obama’s administration of seeking to upend the rights of South Carolina by challenging state voter-identification and immigration laws.
“South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration,” he said.
He also criticized the White House for what he called an overreaction to reports that Marines urinated on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
In an appeal to the military presence in the state, Gingrich drew applause when he defended the U.S. raid in Pakistan, in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed, with a reference to a South Carolinian military hero who went on to become the nation’s seventh president.
“Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies,” Gingrich said. “Kill them.”
All of the candidates agreed that taxes should be lower. Paul suggested that Americans shouldn’t have to pay any income tax. Perry said the highest rate should be 20 percent; Gingrich said 15 percent, Romney said 25 percent and Santorum said it should be 28 percent.
The debate was the 16th held in a primary season marked by the increasing power of independent political action committees, known as super-PACs because they can take unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions. The groups, which aren’t allowed to coordinate with campaigns, are playing a role for the first time in a presidential election after court and regulatory decisions cleared a path for them.
Super PAC Ads
Some of the debate’s most heated moments came as candidates complained about ads being run by the groups.
“It’s probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot,” Romney said of an attack ad about Bain that’s being run by a super-PAC supporting Gingrich.
Santorum criticized an ad by a Romney-supporting super-PAC that he said makes it look like he supports allowing felons to vote in prison. He pressed Romney for his position on the issue.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, said that he didn’t back giving felons the right to vote, even after they’d served their sentences.
Santorum then accused Romney of failing as Massachusetts governor to change a state law allowing felons to vote while on probation or parole.
“If you felt so passionately about this that you are now going to have somebody go out and criticize me,” Santorum said, “Then why didn’t you go out and try to change that while you were governor?”
Gingrich has said that the Romney-backing group, Restore Our Future, has run false ads against him and last night chastised Romney for not putting a stop to them.
“This is typical of what both Senator Santorum and I have complained about with Governor Romney’s super-PAC -- over which he apparently has no influence, which makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president,” Gingrich said.
Romney said that by law he can’t coordinate with the committee, run by his former aides.
“We all would like to have super-PACs disappear,” Romney said.
Today, he told reporters he nonetheless encouraged the creation of Restore Our Future and raised money for it as the only way to get his message out under campaign finance laws.
“It’s not that I don’t support super-PACs,” Romney said. “We raise money for super-PACs, we encourage super-PACs. Each candidate has done that.”
Decrying the laws on raising campaign money, Romney said, “We certainly follow the law as it exists, to make sure that we’re not at a disadvantage in getting our message out.”
--With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Robin Meszoly
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at email@example.com; Kristin Jensen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com