Republicans leap to attack Romney at debate 16 Jan 12

Republican presidential candidates Texas Governor Rick Perry (L), former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) (2nd from L), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) (R) listen as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (C) speaks as they participate in a Republican presidential candidates debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, January 16, 2012.

By John Whitesides and Deborah Charles

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina | Mon Jan 16, 2012 10:47pm EST

(Reuters) – The Republican presidential hopefuls attacked front-runner Mitt Romney’s business record and his failure to release his tax returns on Monday, looking to halt his growing momentum during the early stages of a debate in South Carolina.

Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum challenged Romney on his record and urged voters to take a critical look at the former Massachusetts governor, who leads the race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama.

“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,” said Gingrich, the former House speaker, defending his questions of Romney’s work at a private equity firm that critics say slashed jobs and plundered companies.

“That’s part of what a campaign is about, to answer those questions and deal with them effectively,” he said.

Romney said his firm, Bain Capital, invested in more than 100 businesses and some lost jobs while others thrived and created jobs.

“If people want to have someone who understands how the economy works, having worked in the real economy, then I’m the guy who can best post up against Barack Obama,” Romney said.

Perry, the Texas governor, challenged Romney to release his tax returns. Romney has not agreed to release the returns, although he has not ruled out doing it in the future.

“We need for you to release your income tax so the people of this country can see how you make your money,” Perry said.

Romney did not respond to Perry’s request.

The candidates jumped to criticize Romney in one of the few remaining opportunities to stop his drive to the nomination before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.

The debate came hours after former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman dropped out of the Republican race and endorsed Romney, bolstering his drive for his party’s nomination. Romney won the first two state nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire this month.

The debate is the first of two to be held this week in South Carolina, where a Romney win Saturday could put him on an almost certain path to clinching the right to challenge Obama in November’s election.

Polls show Romney with a solid lead in South Carolina over Gingrich heading into the debate. Another debate will be held in Charleston on Thursday, less than 48 hours before South Carolina Republicans start to vote.