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Romney takes fire on Bain, tax returns in latest GOP debate

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney faced tough questions from his rivals at Monday's debate in South Carolina, including a direct challenge to release his income tax returns. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

Updated at 11:03 p.m. ET

In the sixteenth debate of the 2012 campaign in South Carolina Monday night, Mitt Romney emerged with a steady if unspectacular performance, fending off criticism from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over his tenure as head of Bain Capital.

But under pressure from Texas Gov. Rick Perry and from one of the debate moderators, Romney sounded a bit vague and elusive on precisely when he would release his tax returns.

“We cannot fire our nominee in September -- we need to know now” if he has any vulnerabilities, Perry said. Romney said he would "probably" release his tax returns in April. By that point he may have locked up the GOP nomination. Saturday’s South Carolina primary is likely to be the decisive event of the GOP presidential campaign.

The other contenders all had their moments of prominence. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not back off from his criticism of Romney’s tenure as head of Bain Capital – but he also did not add any new details to his indictment of Romney.

“I raised questions I think are legitimate questions” Gingrich said. “That’s part of a what a campaign is about” -- to raise questions “before you get a to a general election.”

Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, tells TODAY's Matt Lauer that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney "solidified his hold on first place" at Monday's debate in South Carolina.

He said that there was “a pattern in some companies” that Bain invested in of “leaving them with enormous debt” and then bankrupt.

Perry also joined the attack on Romney for Bain’s investment in a steel mill in South Carolina. “Bain swept in” and “they picked that company over and a lot of people lost jobs there," Perry said.

Romney responded that it was cheap foreign steel imports that had caused the problems at the South Carolina steel mill and other mills.

Romney also said that four of the Bain-sponsored companies had added 120,000 jobs to the economy. He added that Bain had invested in well over 100 different businesses. “I had experience turning around tough situations,” he said, and that, he said, is what led to him being asked to run the Salt Lake City Olympics and to run for governor of Massachusetts.

Santorum, too, pressed the attack on Romney and seemed to catch him in an awkward spot when he charged that Romney’s own state had a more liberal law allowing convicted felons to vote than a felon voting law that Santorum had voted for in 2002 when he served in the Senate.

And yet, Santorum said, a Romney-allied group was attacking him for that vote. Romney replied that he believed that people convicted of violent felonies should not be able to vote, but that Democrats controlled the state legislature in Massachusetts.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas got a wave of hostility from the debate audience when he was asked about the killing of Osama bin Laden and argued that even Saddam Hussein and Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann were captured and were put on trial – rather than killed.

Raucous booing followed when Paul tried to argue for a Golden Rule in foreign affairs, “Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want them to do to us.”

'Work is good'
Earlier in the debate, Gingrich hit President Obama with harsh rhetoric, calling him "the best food stamp president in American history." He said the difference between the GOP candidates and Obama was that "we actually think work is good," implying that Obama wanted unemployed people to remain dependent on public benefits.

The dramatic highlight of the debate may have come about an hour into the event when Gingrich got into a tussle with Fox News panelist Juan Williams, who asked about Gingrich advocating that young people get janitorial jobs.

“Only the elites despise earning money,” Gingrich snapped.

Williams then asked whether Gingrich’s “food stamp president” comment about Obama was an example of him “seeking to belittle people.”

Gingrich shot back a heated response, charging that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than by any president in American history.”

Earlier Monday, Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and former envoy to China, announced that he was withdrawing from the race, having suffered a weak third-place finish on Tuesday in New Hampshire. Huntsman threw his support to Romney, calling him “the candidate who is best-equipped to defeat the president and return conservative leadership to the White House.”

Gingrich said Monday that if he wins the primary, he will win the Republican nomination: “South Carolina is going to pick the nominee.”

With Paul getting support from libertarians and those who like his anti-interventionist foreign policy, that leaves the social conservative vote split among Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum. None of the three has been strong enough to unite the conservative factions.