Republicans took every opportunity to jab at Mitt Romney at a Monday debate - one of their last chances to undercut him before he seals his fate as the GOP nominee.
The debate, sponsored by Fox News, was easily one of the liveliest and testiest encounters the candidates have engaged in thus far.
With only five candidates remaining in the race, each contender got plenty of air time and they used it in the first of two debates to take place this week.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry lunged into Romney over his record at private equity firm Bain Capital. Rick Santorum confronted Romney for refusing to stand up to a super PAC supporting him, then flipped his words and his record back on him. And Perry demanded Romney release his tax returns within the week.
The unrestrained assault on Romney illuminated a race that has now come down to the wire; If one of Romney’s rivals can’t knock him out of first place in South Carolina in the next five days, he will have clinched all of the three first states, and his right to the Republican nomination will become a foregone conclusion.
Romney seemed knocked off his game by the unrelenting course of attacks in his first debate since winning the New Hampshire primary. He also left no doubt he was aware of his role as the dominant figure in the race, telling moderators he would be taking a little more time to respond to an inquiry than the rules offered.
“I’ll do it in the order that I want to,” he said later, when pressed by Santorum to directly answer a question posed to him by the candidate.
Santorum seemed infused with energy, refreshed by a race that has moved southward to a state where his emphasis on social conservatism resonated deeply with voters. A resilient Gingrich showed why debate performances have fueled his insurgent candidacy. Ron Paul kept his attacks focused on everyone but Romney, sticking to a strategy of avoiding altercations with the front-runner.
But it was Perry who offered Romney his most direct confrontation.
“Mitt, we need you to release your income tax returns so the people of this country can see how you made your money,” he said. "We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now."
Romney avoided answering Perry at the time but pressed later by moderators, he said he would probably release his returns in April after filing for 2011.
The exchange capped a barbed discussion about Bain Capital, an issue that has dogged Romney on the campaign trail for the past week, but has also backfired for some of the candidates who have tried to use it against Romney.
“Bain swept in, they picked that company over and there were a lot of people who lost jobs there,” said Perry.
“There was a pattern in some companies, in a handful, of leaving them with enormous debt and then within a year or two or three, having them go broke,” said Gingrich, the former House speaker
Well versed on his response to this attack, Romney said he believed in the effectiveness of the free market, offered a new statistic that his opponents in both parties are sure to pick apart in the coming weeks and months: 120,000 jobs he said his business created. Previously, Romney had cited 100,000 as the number of jobs he said were created during his tenure at Bain Capital.
“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,” he said.
In his strongest moment of the night, Santorum laid out a carefully orchestrated trap for Romney – and the former governor walked right into it.
Challenging the fairness and accuracy of a television ad aired by a super PAC supporting Romney that accused Santorum of letting felons vote, Santorum asked Romney what he would have done
“Do you believe people who are felons who’ve served their time, who’ve exhausted their parole, do you think they should be allowed to vote?” Santorum asked.
When Romney tried to pivot back to a discussion about super PACs, Santorum picked up cheers and applaud for demanding a straight answer.
“I don’t think people who’ve committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again,” Romney said.
It was then that Santorum reminded Romney that when he was governor of Massachusetts, the state had a more liberal policy than what Santorum had advocated, and even let those on parole vote – and said Romney did nothing to change it.
“This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community,” Santorum said, bringing racial implications into an already sensitive discussion about personal rights. “This was a provision that specifically targeted African Americans, and I voted to allow them have their voting rights back.”
Romney dismissed allegations that he should be held responsible for attack ads aired by super PACs supporting him.
“I did not have a super PAC run an ad against you,” Romney said to Santorum.
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The question of responsibility for super PACs, which by law cannot coordinate directly with the campaigns they are supporting, has become an issue facing a number of the candidates. Contenders have used that rule, once viewed as an impediment, to shield themselves from accusations they are willingly going negative against their opponents.
Gingrich called for his PAC last week to edit or remove an inaccurate video targeting Romney. Santorum demanded Romney go even farther, painting the front-runner as the predatory kingpin who won’t take responsibility for the injuries he was causing.
“I would go out and say stop it because you’re representing me and you represent my campaign. Stop it,” Santorum said forcefully.
“This is a great example of the insiders that are having a conversation up there,” interjected Perry with a broad, ironic smile.
And Gingrich later harped on the issue to question whether Romney was exposing a deficiency of leadership.
“It makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president,” Gingrich said.
Romney took the opportunity to remind Gingrich of the ad he has already asked his PAC to edit. The 27-minute documentary dramatizes the experience of former employees allegedly laid off by companies controlled by Romney.
“Mr. Speaker, you have a super PAC ad that attacks me. It’s probably the biggest hoax since Big Foot,” Romney said, adding that he wished the system would change to prohibit the super PAC expenditures made legal by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.
Few candidates if any emerged from the two-hour debate without getting booed by the raucous, whooping crowd. But none faced as much audible opposition as Paul, who one member of the audience shouted should “go home.”
“Just because you spend a million dollars on an embassy bigger than the Vatican - You consider that defense spending. I consider that waste,” Paul said.
The frank exchange on defense spending and foreign policy revealed at the same moment why Paul attracts such avid support and why his opponents believe his appeal is so fatally limited.
“We constantly bomb these nations and we wonder why they get upset with us?” Paul said, seeming egged on by the booing instead of convinced to retreat. “It’s war mongering. They’re building us up for another war against Iran, and people can’t wait.”
As with some previous debates, the candidates weren’t the only ones to get loudly booed. Juan Williams, a Fox News analyst and columnist for The Hill, found little support for his line of questioning when he asked Gingrich whether he had been racially insensitive by calling Obama the food-stamp president.
“First of all, Juan,” the former speaker said, his voice dripping with condescension, “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than at any time in history. I know around the politically correct, you are not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
Gingrich pointed his finger sharply at Williams as he accused the moderator of baiting the issue, rejecting the implication in a state with a long history of racial collisions.
On other issues where Romney was again at the center of a ring of inquiry, the former governor navigated carefully, hoping to avoid setting off an increasingly oppositional audience. He stressed that he favors legal immigration while blasting illegal immigration in South Carolina. But he couldn’t evade a round of booing when he declared his support for indefinite detentions.
"You have every right in this country to protest and to express your views on a wide range of issues, but you don't have the right to join a group that has challenged America,” Romney said, calling it treason to threaten the death of Americans.
Monday’s debate was also the first since the withdrawal of Jon Huntsman from the race. The former Utah governor suspended his campaign earlier Monday after a third-place finish in New Hampshire.
-- Cameron Joseph and Justin Sink contributed.
-- This story was originally posted at 9:24 p.m. land ast updated at 11:45 p.m.