Mitt Romney said he would not release his tax returns until April, and left himself wiggle room even on that answer, in response to a demand by Governor Perry of Texas that "we need to know now."
Mr. Romney said he believes people who commit violent crimes should permanently lose their right to vote even if they serve their time and successfully re-enter society.
Mr. Romney also said he would have signed a military appropriations bill that denies a habeas corpus right to American citizens. "People who join Al Qaeda are not entitled to the rights of due process," Mr. Romney said, leaving unanswered how exactly, other than due process, the government was to determine who had joined Al Qaeda. Nor did Mr. Romney explain how he planned, if elected, to swear an oath to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution, which includes the Fifth Amendment, and have it be consistent with that position on due process. He said he didn't think President Obama would abuse the power to detain citizens and that he didn't plan to abuse it, either.
Those were the headlines from the most recent Republican presidential debate, aired Monday night by Fox News from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Senator Santorum distinguished himself from Governor Romney in answering the question about detaining American citizens. "If you are a citizen, you have a right to go to court," Mr. Santorum said. "I would maintain that standard as president."
Ron Paul sided with Mr. Santorum against Mr. Romney on the point, contending, "This is major!"
Speaker Gingrich strongly parried several questions from Fox News's Juan Williams, who suggested that Mr. Gingrich's idea that teenagers work as school janitors was somehow insulting. Mr. Gingrich said his daughter's first job, at age 13, was janitorial work. "Only the elites despise earning money," Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Perry had a strong debate, though at times he seemed to be angling a little too much for the Confederate vote, at least for my Northern tastes.
Ron Paul spent a lot of time talking about how American action overseas was counterproductive.
In a discussion of entitlement reform, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum teamed up to criticize a Newt Gingrich plan for private accounts as unaffordable. Mr. Santorum called it "fiscal insanity," and Mr. Romney said, "Rick is right." Mr. Santorum also faulted Mr. Romney for not favoring benefit cuts for current Social Security recipients. Mr. Santorum said there are 60,000 people earning more than $1 million a year collecting Social Security. "We're borrowing money from China to pay those millionaires," Mr. Santorum said. Mr. Romney said he'd support eventually moving to a system where higher-income recipients received lower benefits.
The candidates were all asked what the highest federal personal income tax rate should be. Mr. Gingrich said 15%, Mr. Santorum 28%, Mr. Romney 25% (a number with symbolic resonance, and an advance beyond the economic plan issued by his campaign). Ron Paul said 0% while noting that the biggest tax is inflation. Mr. Perry's answer was inaudible to me, you can try to make it out for yourself here.
It was one of the livelier debates so far, perhaps because with Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman all out of the race, the remaining candidates had more time to shine. The ones left in all have strengths, which is why they are still in. Mr. Romney is effective when he's singing the praises of the free enterprise system and contrasting his approach against President Obama's, but sometimes it feels like Nelson Rockefeller's description of George Romney — "His greatest weakness is that he ... is too sure of what he doesn't know" — could apply to Mitt, too.