Thursday night, with the crucial South Carolina primary looming on Saturday, the four remaining major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination (Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman dropped out this week) gathered in Charleston for what could be the final GOP primary debate. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who fought ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to a tie in Iowa and won handily in New Hampshire, could conceivably lock up the nomination if he wins big in South Carolina. If that happens, it won't be because Romney will have a big lead in the delegate race—he won't—but because a third consecutive first-place finish will make it difficult for the other candidates to continue to raise money. That's why Romney hasn't yet agreed to attend the two GOP debates scheduled for next week—he may not need to.
On the other hand, Newt Gingrich has been surging in the Palmetto State polls, and could conceivably win on Saturday despite reports that emerged on Thursday that he sought an "open marriage" with his second wife, Marianne. And Ron Paul and Santorum are still in the race, too.
Here's a rundown of all the action from Thursday night's debate. Jump to all the best tweets on the debate, as they unfolded in real-time, from the MoJo crew and other political junkies.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has faced some tough questions about his taxes since telling reporters on Tuesday that he pays "close to 15 percent" of his income to the IRS—a lower rate than many Americans who don't have the GOP front-runner's fortune, which is estimated to be as high as a quarter-billion dollars. If the booing at Thursday night's debate is any indication, Romney remains vulnerable on the tax issue, even among Republican primary voters.
"[Why shouldn't] the people of South Carolina, before the election see last year's return?" CNN's John King asked the ex-governor.
"Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama, and every time we release things, drip by drip, the Democrats come out with another array of attacks," Romney responded. "If I'm the nominee, I'll put these out at one time, so we'll have one discussion of all of this."
When King pointed out that Mitt's father George Romney released twelve years of tax returns when running for president and asked Mitt if he would follow his father's example, the candidate chuckled awkwardly before saying, "Maybe, I don't know how many returns I'll release."
At that point, Romney had to pause for parts of the South Carolina audience to stop heckling and booing him. Then he recovered with what's likely to be a common refrain in the general election if the ex-governor wins the nomination. "I'm not going to apologize for being successful," Romney said, and the audience cheered.
The Obama administration offered a tax proposal last year that would have made the wealthy pay a larger share of their income. The proposal was dubbed "The Buffet Rule," after wealthy investor Warren Buffett, who said that some of his employees pay lower tax rates than he does. At the time, Democrats salivated at the possiblity that Romney might also be paying a lower effective tax rate than people who don't own more than one house, even as he's proposing even larger tax cuts for the well-off. With most Americans still struggling financially, voters might not be as receptive to a super-wealthy politician asking them to bear a larger share of the tax burden so that he and other wealthy Americans can pay less.
There's also the possibility that there's some sort of major scandal lurking in Romney's financial history that could sink his chances in the general election.
Newt Gingrich, who released his tax returns Thursday evening, wasn't shy about raising the possibility.
"If there’s anything in there thats going to help us lose the election we should know before he wins the nomination," Gingrich said. "If there’s nothing in there why not release it?"
At Thursday's GOP presidential debate in Charleston, Rick Santorum pulled out what he thought was the perfect anecdote for bureaucratic overreach. As he explained it, he'd talked to a state health official in Iowa and been informed that the state had actually been fined by the federal government because it didn't cover enough people under Medicaid. It was an example of well-intentioned big government gone bad and passing the burden onto a cash-strapped state. But was it true?
As it happens, ABC's Huma Khan looked into this when Santorum first brought it up earlier in January:
First, there is no "Department of Public Welfare" in Iowa, as Santorum stated. It’s the Department of Human Services that disburses Medicaid grants.
Second, it is unclear to what "fine" Santorum was referring. Iowa, like other states, receives federal reimbursement for the money it disburses in Medicaid fees. There is no quota system or target that the state has to meet in order to be eligible for federal money. The amount of money that each state receives is dependent on its economy.
"The formula is based on how well that state is doing economically and since Iowa is improving its economic status, we are soon to lose a couple percentage points," said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. "This is not a punishment. This is a recognition that Iowa’s economy is improving relative to other states."
So: Not exactly the nightmare scenario Santorum warned us of. But it could be worse; when Michele Bachmann wanted an anonymous expert to back up her allegation that under Obamacare, IRS agents would be forced to approve every medical procedure, she claimed to have heard it first-hand from a seven-foot-tall doctor.
At Thursday night's Republican primary debate on CNN, Mitt Romney told the audience he "didn't inherit money from my parents." Romney's dad, George Romney, was the CEO of the American Motors Company and governor of Michigan during the 1960s, so it's hard to believe he didn't have money to bequeath his son Mitt. As it happens, the younger Romney explained what happened to his inheritance in more detail in an interview with Reuters in December [emphasis added]:
"What I got from my parents when they passed away I gave away to charity and to my kids. And so what I’ve earned has been earned through my education, my values, living in the greatest country in the world, through some luck and through hard work," he said.
Passing your inheritance on to your children is not the same as not inheriting money at all. And it actually makes me a bit curious: a common estate-tax reduction strategy known as a dynasty trust relies on skipping generations. Did Romney pass on his inheritance to his kids for tax reasons? It's hard to know without seeing his tax returns—and that's another reason why he should release them.
At Thursday night's CNN debate, Mitt Romney attacked the Obama administration's loan guarantees for the now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra as a prime instance of the government picking winners and losers in business, and losing big. But Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney founded, frequently received similar help from state governments, including subsidies and tax breaks. The subsidy-tracking folks over at Good Jobs First compiled a vast database on just how much states have bailed out companies that were bought and—in a number of cases—gutted by Bain Capital. Some of the highlights:
Sealy. A year after the 1997 buyout of this leading mattress company by Bain and other private equity firms, Sealy received $600,000 from state and local authorities in North Carolina to move its corporate offices, a research center and a manufacturing plant from Ohio (Greensboro News & Record, March 31, 1998). In 2004 Bain and its partners sold Sealy to another private equity group.
GS Industries. In 1996 American Iron Reduction LLC, a joint venture of GS Industries (which had been taken private by Bain in 1993) and Birmingham Steel, sought some $20 million in tax breaks in connection with its plan to build a plant in Louisiana’s St. James Parish (Baton Rouge Advocate, April 6, 1996). As the United Steelworkers union noted recently, GS Industries later applied for a federal loan guarantee, but before the deal could be implemented the company went bankrupt.
AMC Entertainment. After being promised more than $40 million in subsidies, this movie chain (bought in 2004 by Bain and other private equity firms) agreed to move its headquarters from downtown Kansas City, Missouri to a nearby suburb across the state line in Kansas. The deal was criticized as an egregious case of taxpayer-financed sprawl. [Even though Romney left Bain in 1999, he's continued reaping millions in lightly taxed investment income since then.]
As for the office supply store Staples, a supposed success Romney frequently touts? In 1996, the company chose to move its distribution center to Maryland in exchange for a healthy $4.2 million subsidy deal.
Romney says that President Obama's record of aiding private enterprise proves the president doesn't have a clue about how capitalism works—that, in the Obama's view, capitalism necessarily relies on the generosity of government largesse. But if we're to judge Romney's understanding of capitalism based on how he ran the show at Bain, it's tough to see how business success doesn't often rely on government help.
10:05 ET: That's a wrap folks. Read from the bottom up for all over our live-tweet coverage of the South Carolina showdown.
No game-changer in this debate. If Newt surging, it could continue. Mitt didn't screw up. Santorum was strong. Paul was Paul.— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
Shorter Ron Paul: A woman's body is like a house, and abortion is like burgling that house. #wombwithaview— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) January 20, 2012
Shorter GOP candidates: We're so anti-choice, we'd cut funding for coat hangers.— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) January 20, 2012
Oh my goodness, a clash of memes. Big government is bad. But big government should outlaw abortion. #cnndebate— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
Here's an article about what life was like "before the age of abortion":bit.ly/9x6pr5— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) January 20, 2012
I love Newt's local draft-board idea. No opportunity for abuse & favortism there. Sounds like Cuba's neighborhood watch program. #cnndebate— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
Weird. Santorum doesn't like the idea of "anything goes" on the Internet. I'll google his name and figure out why— daveweigel (@daveweigel) January 20, 2012
Here's how Newt Gingrich saved porn in the Communications Decency Act: bit.ly/uJyhP6— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) January 20, 2012
Foreign affairs, anyone?
Romney fields the dreaded tax-returns question:
Romney, you're putting off tax returns until April so you can make sure they're up to snuff. Care to share last year's? #CNNdebate— Gov. Buddy Roemer (@BuddyRoemer) January 20, 2012
Wait, Romney just got booed? Did he compliment a gay soldier or say something from science? #cnndebate— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) January 20, 2012
King: Why won't you release your tax returns like your father? Mitt: Chuckles, "Maybe." Gets booed.— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) January 20, 2012
Romney has a Perry-esque moment, his mouth open but nothing coming out.
Romney was buffering for a minute there.— Ben Dimiero (@bendimiero) January 20, 2012
Santorum and Gingrich go at it.
Santorum with a surprisingly accurate summation of Newt.— Charles Homans (@chashomans) January 20, 2012
"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," Santorum says. Fact-o-meter: True!— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) January 20, 2012
The Ron Paul sideshow:
When Rob Paul is talking, it's A) a great time to catch up on email; B) take bathroom break; C) order pizza; D) all the above? #CNNdebate— Mark Follman (@markfollman) January 20, 2012
#RonPaulFact: in Appalachia in the 60s, everyone had great health care.— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
Ron Paul: in the 60s with no govt in health care, there was nobody "out in the streets" who went without medical care.//Truly demented— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
Romney shook after Santorum accuses him and Gingrich of "playing footsie" with the left.— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) January 20, 2012
Not really surprising that Santorum disapproves of footsie. It's not the missionary position.— NickBaumann (@NickBaumann) January 20, 2012
Newt loves kids!
#Gingrich: Being on parents' insurance in your mid-20's is like still living at home. Seems unaware one might have job but no insurance.— Amy Davidson (@tnyCloseRead) January 20, 2012
This Newt argument about kids under 26 is the kind of argument you make if you're not expecting anyone under 26 to vote for you.— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) January 20, 2012
A grab bag of early highlights:
Why does Romney think South Carolina GOP primary voters care about non-discrimation on preexisting conditions?— NickBaumann (@NickBaumann) January 20, 2012
Q for Romney: if free enterprise always works, how do you explain subprime crisis and 2008 crash? #cnndebate— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
It took Santorum and Romney each about 2 nanoseconds to mention their respective wives. Newt neglected to do that in his opening. Hmmm— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) January 20, 2012
The thing is, some of Newt's other denials about affairs—"Mother Jones smeared me"—did turn out to be 100% true.— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) January 20, 2012
CNN's John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich about the "open marriage" allegations. Gingrich said the allegations were false but slammed King and the media in general for bringing it up in the first place. But the New York Daily News' Josh Greenman has a point:
Mr. Gingrich, do you in retrospect believe the media should not have pursued the Bill Clinton 'improprieties' when he ran for President?— Josh Greenman (@joshgreenman) January 20, 2012