MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – The Republican candidates were returning to the campaign trail Tuesday slightly bruised but unbowed after a raucous debate that left Mitt Romney fielding attacks from the get-go and all five candidates earning wild reception from a fired-up audience that will be casting votes alongside fellow South Carolinians on Saturday.
Romney was put on defense out of the box at the Fox News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina GOP debate -- answering questions about his record at private venture firm, Bain Capital; distancing himself from super PAC ads against fellow candidates; defending his record as Massachusetts governor, and dodging demands that he release his tax records.
But Romney held his ground against the onslaught, saying he is proud of his record in business and as governor.
"We were fortunate to have an unemployment rate by the time I left office of 4.7 percent. Sounds pretty good today," Romney said of his one-term leading Massachusetts. "And I was also proud of the fact that we balanced the budget every year I was in office. We reduced taxes 19 times, put in place a rainy day fund of over $2 billion by the time I left."
Still, with his rivals running out of time to make the case they are a viable and "conservative" alternative to the front-runner, the attacks were fast and furious.
Rick Perry accused Bain of sweeping into Georgetown, S.C., and closing a steel mill.
"They picked that company over, and a lot of people lost jobs there," Perry said.
Romney replied that Bain actually invested in two steel mills and invested for seven or eight years, but the mills closed because of actions beyond Bain's control.
"Ultimately, what happened from abroad, dumping steel into this country, led to some 40 different steel mills being closed," Romney said. "I understand what happens when China cheats, or when others cheat and dump products into this country. That's one of the reasons I'm running, is to make sure we crack down on cheaters."
The Texas governor also called on Romney to release his income tax returns, saying the American public had a right to know how he earned his money. Perry added, "We can't fire our nominee in September."
At first Romney ignored the statement but later he said that he has "nothing in my tax records that have any problem, and if I become the nominee, I'm happy to show them."
Put on his heels over an unexpected confrontation about not changing Massachusetts' law to deny felons the right to vote, Romney said he had an 85 percent Democratic Legislature and thought about the issue but decided not to pursue it.
The odd topic came after Rick Santorum complained that a political action committee supporting Romney is lying in TV advertisements in South Carolina attacking Santorum on several issues, including his support for voting rights for felons.
"It is inaccurate," Santorum said of the ad assailing him, seeking the last word. "I would go out and say, 'Stop it, that you're representing me and you're representing my campaign. Stop it.'"
Answering Newt Gingrich's call for a similar retraction of false ads, Romney responded that the ad on his work at Bain was wrong.
"It's probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot," Romney said, adding that McCain-Feingold and other campaign finance laws are disasters. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could give what we like to campaigns? ... Candidates should have the responsibility and the right to manage the ads that are run in their names."
But not every question was for Romney, and the candidates fired up the crowd with many of their responses.
Santorum defended himself against Ron Paul's criticism of his record as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania on raising the national deficit, supporting Sarbanes-Oxley banking laws and voting against right-to-work labor legislation.
"Look, Congressman Paul has been quoting sources like CREW, which is a George Soros or a left-wing-backed organization, saying that I was corrupt. And in fact, throughout his entire ad, he quotes a lot of left-wing organizations. Well, of course, left-wing organizations say a lot of bad things about me. I would expect them. And that's -- I wear that as a badge of honor, not something that I'm ashamed of," Santorum said.
Gingrich earned applause for several arguments, including his call to tie all unemployment compensation, which currently lasts 99 weeks, to a job training requirement.
"Now, the fact is, 99 weeks is an associate degree," Gingrich said. "It tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Barack Obama and the five of us, that we actually think work is good."
He also won strong support from the audience when he was asked whether it was belittling to minorities to suggest that poor, young kids be paid for "light janitorial work" at school. Gingrich replied, "No, I don't see that."
"They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money," he said.
And Paul won support for his argument that the top tax rate should be zero, but he was booed for trying to suggest that the U.S. military was too big abroad and should be brought home. The Texas congressman, who has found both his strongest support and his biggest criticism focuses on his foreign policy positions, added that U.S. policy has created more chaos and the de facto policy of assassination is only making things worse.
"If another country does to us what we do others, we're not going to like it very much. So I would say that maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in -- in foreign policy," he said. "Don't do to other nations what we don't want to have them do to us. So we -- we endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?"
"Of course you take out our enemies, wherever they are," he said. "These people declared war on us. They've killed Americans. We go anywhere they are, and we kill them. And the right thing for Usama bin Laden was the bullet in the head that he received. That's the right thing for people who kill American citizens."
Paul also argued that the drug war is cause for part of the border patrol problems. Perry promised that "one year, by time I take my hand off the Bible," the U.S. border would be secured.
"The idea that Americans don't want us to secure that border is false," Perry said.
The debate comes as Romney maintains his lead in polls leading up to the South Carolina primary. Having already won New Hampshire by 16 percentage points and Iowa by eight votes -- though the Santorum camp suggests that when the votes are certified Tuesday afternoon, Romney may be surprised by the outcome -- the leader is trying to keep his position and make the hat trick with South Carolina, which has picked the GOP nominee every election year since 1980.
Monday night's debate, hosted by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the South Carolina Republican Party, delved into several meaty topics, including the U.S. role in the world, ways to prolong the life of Medicare and Social Security and determining the right tax policy to balance the budget.
Big applause lines also came from hitting the Obama administration for policies that the candidates said are preventing the U.S. from emerging from recession and giving Americans a better future.
"I know the Democrats are going to be showing videos of, you know, old people being thrown off cliffs and so forth. But don't forget who it was that cut Medicare by $500 billion, and that was President Obama to pay for Obamacare," Romney said, explaining that he would preserve entitlement for people over 55 but would change the rules to add means testing on Social Security and delay the retirement date.
Citing a study by the Brookings Institution and a separate program called Best Friends, run by the wife of former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, Santorum said the Obama administration has instituted rules to prohibit promoting marriage and abstinence to young girls despite statistics showing that marriage helped prevent poverty.
"They have to be neutral with respect to how people behave. The problem is neutrality ends in poverty, neutrality ends in choices that hurt people's lives. This administration is deliberately telling organizations that are there to help young girls make good choices, not to tell them what the good choice is. That is absolutely unconscionable," he said.