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

Mitt Romney spoke haltingly and indecisively, during GOP's South Carolina debate, about his tenure at Bain Capital and whether he would release his tax returns.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2012

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney listens to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talk prior to the GOP's South Carolina debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Monday.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Washington

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.

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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.

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.”

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