North Charleston, S.C.

Considering the extended discussions of health care overhauls and unreleased tax returns, Mitt Romney had a tough night in the final debate before Saturday’s primary.

Asked about releasing his tax returns, Romney was, as he has been, noncommittal. “When my taxes are complete for this year, and I know that if I'm the nominee, the president's going to want to insist that I show what my income was this last year and so forth. When they're completed this year in April, I'll release my returns in April and probably for other years as well,” he said.

Romney’s defense of his refusal to release those tax returns was chiefly a strategic argument. “Every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks,” he 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.”

Moderator John King asked Romney if he would follow the example of his father, who released 12 years of tax returns when he was running for president in 1967. “Maybe,” Romney replied, as he let out a laugh. “You know, I don't know how many years I'll release. I'll take a look at what…our documents are and I'll release multiple years.” That response received a wave of boos from the audience.

Questions on health care brought more tough moments for the former Massachusetts governor. After Romney reiterated that he would “go after a complete repeal” of Obamacare, Santorum jumped at the opportunity to criticize his Massachusetts overhaul.

“Governor Romney tells a very nice story about what his plan is now,” Santorum said. “It wasn't his plan when he was in a position to do a plan. When he was governor of Massachusetts, he put forth Romneycare, which was not a bottom-up free market system. It was a government-run health care system that was the basis of Obamacare, and it has been an abject failure. And he has stood by it.”

Romney pushed back, arguing in part that his experience crafting his plan gives him an edge. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” he said. “But I do believe that having been there, having been in the front lines, showing that I have compassion for people that don't have insurance but that the Obama plan is a 2,700-page massive tax increase, Medicare-cutting monster. I know how to cut it. I'll eliminate it. I will repeal it.”

Newt Gingrich, too, got in some criticism of Romneycare, teaming up with Santorum to argue that Romney’s reforms allowed for public funding of abortions. “Romneycare does pay for tax-paid abortions,” he charged. “Romneycare has written into it Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, by name.”

Romney protested that he wasn’t at fault. “First, in Romneycare there's no mention of abortion whatsoever,” he said. “The courts in Massachusetts, the supreme court was the body that decided that all times if there was any subsidy of health care in Massachusetts that one received abortion care. That was not done by the legislature. Would not be done by me either. I would have vetoed such a thing. That was done by the courts, not by the legislature or by me.”

It was a weak answer, and Santorum jumped in to say that explanation isn’t credible. “And a lot of [legislators] know this to be the truth, that if you write a piece of legislation and you say medical care and you do not specifically mention that abortion is not covered, we know from every court decision at the state and federal levels that the federal courts and state courts will require it,” Santorum claimed. “That is [something] every governor knows, every state legislator knows. And so when Governor Romney did not put that in the bill, you can't say, ‘Oh, gee, surprise, the court made us cover abortions.’ He knew very well that the court would make them cover abortions.”

With Gingrich surging lately in South Carolina, Romney could have used a great debate to help him along here in South Carolina. Instead, he talked about tax returns and Romneycare.

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