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In South Carolina debate, rough patches for usually polished Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney generally has been a smooth debater, but in Monday night’s round in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the former governor of Massachusetts hit some rough moments.

Mitt Romney generally has been a smooth debater, but in Monday night’s round in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the former governor of Massachusetts hit some rough moments.

Mr. Romney answered haltingly — and indecisively — to the question of whether he would release his tax returns, an issue that has dogged the wealthy GOP presidential front-runner for weeks. When asked about his tenure at Bain Capital, Romney again meandered through an answer on jobs created and lost at the private equity firm.

When the discussion turned to voting rights for convicted felons who have served their time, Romney eventually asserted that he was opposed — but it took him a while to get there. He also took heat for the attack ads a pro-Romney group has been running.

None of these episodes was a game-changer. But they were instructive. In the run-up to Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, a potentially decisive contest in the Republican nomination race, Romney could have anticipated sharp questioning, in particular, on Bain and on his tax returns. He did not seem to have thought through his responses in advance.

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Just as certainly, Team Obama is watching closely and taking notes. From Monday night’s debate, and at other moments in the 15 Republican sparring matches before it, the takeaway is that Romney can get rattled.

The issue of Romney’s tax returns was perhaps the most curious. The former governor seemed to be thinking out loud when he responded that he “hadn’t planned on releasing tax records” but “if that’s been the tradition, then I’m not opposed to doing that.”

“Time will tell,” he continued. “But I anticipate that most likely I’m going to get asked to do that around the April time period, and I’ll keep that open.”

So that’s a yes? You will release your tax records in April? one of the questioners followed up.

“I — I think I’ve heard enough from folks saying, look, you know, let’s see your tax records,” Romney replied. “I have nothing in — in them that — to suggest there’s any problem, and I’m happy to do so. I–I–I sort of feel like we’re — we’re showing a lot of exposure at this point, and if I become our nominee I’m –and what’s happened in history is people have released them in about April of the coming year, and that’s probably what I’d do.”

Even if it wasn’t a firm yes, it appears Romney has no choice but to release his tax records. From that, the public will gain a window into Romney’s life as a wealthy businessman. His income from investments, his tax rate, his deductions, and charitable giving will all be noteworthy — particularly at a time of intense public attention to the growing gap between rich and poor in America.

Romney was also given an opportunity to respond to charges about his record at Bain Capital, which Texas Gov. Rick Perry has likened to “vulture capitalism.” Again, Romney did not seem to have a well-thought-through response to an issue that has faced sharp scrutiny in recent weeks — including a half-hour documentary on Bain that a pro-Gingrich group is promoting.

Romney called the documentary “probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.” Indeed, media fact-checkers have discredited it as highly misleading. But Romney has yet to provide a chapter-and-verse accounting of his Bain record. A presidential debate that requires brevity does not lend itself to a lengthy explanation, but Romney’s answer seemed cursory. After responding to a case raised by questioner Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal, he fell back into generalities.

“Every time we invested, we tried to grow an enterprise, to add jobs, to make it more successful,” Romney said. “I know President Obama is going to come after me. But the record is pretty darn good.”

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On the issue of ex-felons and voting rights, it was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who was the attacker, and he did eventually get Romney to say that he opposed granting those rights, a popular position among Republicans. But in the process, Mr. Santorum highlighted Romney’s time as governor of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, and the fact that he did not fight to change the law there on felon voting rights.

On attack ads by outside groups, Romney opponents sought to blame the ex-governor over claims made in ads by the well-funded “super PAC” Restore Our Future, which supports Romney. And even though Romney was correct in asserting that under the law, he is barred from coordinating with a super PAC, that didn’t stop former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from suggesting otherwise.

“[It] makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president,” Mr. Gingrich said.