In an electric debate here Thursday night, the four remaining Republican presidential candidates clashed sharply over who has the temperament, character and know-how to lead the party into a general election as they clamored to take advantage of the race’s changing dynamic.

Newt Gingrich said it was “despicable” of the news media to raise questions about a previous marriage. A feisty Rick Santorum offered himself as the only true conservative in the race and accused his two main rivals for “playing footsie with the left.”

Front-runner Mitt Romney again became defensive under pressure to release his tax returns, saying that he would not apologize for being successful in America and that he would release his returns in April.

And Rep. Ron Paul lamented that he sometimes became an afterthought.

On a day in which Texas Gov. Rick Perry withdrew from the race, Santorum sought to deny Gingrich the mantle of the conservative alternative to Romney, attacking him for his big ideas and accusing him of a lack of follow-through.

“Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” said Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania. “Newt’s a friend. I love him. But at times, you’ve just got, you know, sort of that, you know, worrisome moment that something’s going to pop. And we can’t afford that in a nominee.”

The debate got off to a combative start as the moderator, CNN’s John King, asked Gingrich to respond to interviews in which his second wife, Marianne, said he asked her to agree to an open marriage while he was having an affair.

A defiant Gingrich said “the story is false” and lashed out at what he described as “the destructive, vicious, negative nature” of the media.

“Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things,” Gingrich said. “To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

‘Why not release it?’

This Republican debate carried an unusual sense of urgency for the three men trying to stop Romney’s march to the nomination.

The former Massachusetts governor faced tough questions about releasing his tax returns and tried to beat back accusations of slashing jobs during his tenure at the private-equity firm Bain Capital.

“I’m going to stand and defend capitalism across this country throughout this campaign,” Romney said. “I know we’re going to get hit hard from President Obama, but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.”

Gingrich released his tax returns Thursday night just as the debate was about to begin, increasing pressure on Romney to do the same. Romney again appeared uncomfortable discussing the issue. He promised to release this year’s return when it is filed in April, along with records from some previous years. But when asked whether he would follow the model of his father, George, who released 12 years’ worth of records when running for president in 1968, Romney replied simply: “Maybe.”

“I want to make sure that I beat President Obama, and every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks,” Romney said. “As has been done in the past, if I’m the nominee, I’ll put these out at one time so we have one discussion of all of this.”

Gingrich said Romney should put out the records and offer assurance to primary voters that the tax returns do not contain surprises that could torpedo a nominee’s campaign.

“If there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination,” Gingrich said. “And if there’s nothing in there — if there’s nothing in there, why not release it?”

And Paul said he had no intention of releasing his tax returns — “but for a different reason.”

“I’d probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income,” Paul said. “And I don’t want to be embarrassed because I don’t have a greater income.”

Gingrich, who has been surging, had to endure his fair share of the attacks not just from Santorum, but from Romney as well, who accused Gingrich of inflating his “rendition of history.”

“You talk about all the things you did with Ronald Reagan and the Reagan revolution, and the jobs created during the Reagan years and so forth,” Romney said. “I looked at the Reagan diary. You’re mentioned once in Ronald Reagan’s diary.”

Strong moment for Paul

At moments, the debate seemed to center on Romney, Gingrich and Santorum; at one point, when King called on Paul, he feigned relief and wiped his forehead.

But Paul seemed to have a particularly strong moment, noting that he has long opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act, a measure to end copyright infringement on the Internet.

“I am pleased that the attitude has sort of mellowed up here, because the Republicans, unfortunately, have been on the wrong side of this issue,” Paul said. “And this is a good example on why it’s good to have somebody that can look at civil liberties and work with coalitions and bring people together.”

The four candidates clashed over who has the temperament, character and know-how to lead the party into a general election, but it was Romney who came under the most intense fire over his record and policy prescriptions as his rivals tried to paint him as insufficiently conservative to be the GOP’s standard-bearer.

Santorum homed in on health care, arguing that Romney had signed a Massachusetts law too similar to Obama’s federal overhaul.

He singled out Gingrich, too, for wanting to require individuals to purchase health insurance — a key part of the Democratic plan — until only a few years ago.

“The problem is that two of the people up here would be very difficult to elect on, I think, the most important issue that this country is dealing with right now, which is the robbing of our freedom because of Obamacare,” Santorum said.

“I’ve been fighting for health reform, private sector, bottom up — the way America works best — for 20 years, while these two guys were playing footsie with the left,” he added.

Romney and Gingrich both retorted that Santorum’s attacks were unfair. Romney said the Massachusetts plan has worked well for the state and remains popular with citizens there. He said his experience with the program would give him a unique perch to explain the weaknesses with Obama’s federal system.

“I’ll return the power to the states, where the power for caring for the uninsured ought to reside constitutionally,” Romney said. “We’ll make it work in the way that’s designed to have health care act like a market, a consumer market, as opposed to have it run like Amtrak and the post office.”

And Gingrich said he could explain exactly why the individual mandate is flawed. “I can say, you know, I was wrong and I figured it out. You were wrong, and you didn’t,” he said of a potential debate with Obama.

As he has repeatedly in recent days, Gingrich suggested voters should question Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital, which made money off companies that later went bankrupt.

“I think there are specific cases . . . where Bain Capital’s model — which was to take over a company and dramatically leverage it, leave it with a great deal of debt — made it less likely to survive,” Gingrich said.

He said Romney “ought to explain” how that happened given that he is citing his tenure at Bain as private-sector experience that would help him as president.

Romney responded with a rousing defense of his Bain work as an example of free enterprise that Republicans should support.


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