2012 ELECTION

South Carolina primary moves ahead

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FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) - Seeking to protect his standing in South Carolina, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney on Tuesday assailed challenger Rick Santorum's record on voting rights for felons, an issue that resonates strongly with conservatives.

The South Carolina primaries push on, as the candidates take to attack ads

Santorum separately argued that the former Massachusetts governor "promotes lies" as the two intensified their dispute from the previous night's GOP debate. "We have a candidate who's not going to stand up and tell the truth," Santorum told reporters in Charleston, complaining that Romney refuses to condemn TV ads run by his supporters.

"That leads to real serious questions about whether that man can be trusted to tell the truth on a variety of things."

But Romney, speaking separately in Florence, defended the accuracy of the ads in question, although he maintains he has no control over the negative commercials by outside groups that are flooding South Carolina in the days leading to Saturday's Republican primary.

"I hear that Rick Santorum is very animated that the super PAC ad says that he is very in favor of felons voting," Romney said. "Well, he is! That's his position."

While Santorum complained about the negative commercials during Monday's debate, Romney's three other challengers also tried a host of other attacks in hopes of knocking the former Massachusetts governor off stride. They kept the spotlight on the multimillionaire's wealth and business dealings by pressing him to release his income tax returns. Romney hesitated but eventually said he might make them public in April. By then, he hopes to have the presidential nomination in the bag.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Romney seemed to qualify that even farther, suggesting that he would release just one year of his tax returns - not the six previous years that President Obama released or even the two years that John McCain released in 2008. "People will want to see the most recent year," Romney said.

Romney also came under heavy pressure in the debate on the issue of his job-creation record at his former private equity firm Bain Capital, and his evolving views on abortion. On Tuesday, Santorum said that by refusing to condemn the ads, Romney "supports lies, promotes lies and stands behind those lies."

Meanwhile, Gingrich picked up the support of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who appeared with him in Florence, calling the former U.S. House speaker the smartest and toughest candidate. Romney already has the more coveted endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite, however.

Following the Monday night debate, the five candidates will meet again in debate in Charleston Thursday night, the last time they will share a stage before the primary two days later.

Monday night, Romney said that while he might be willing to release his tax returns, he wouldn't do so until tax filing time. Gingrich was quick to suggest Romney wouldn't delay for months if he had nothing to hide and that his hesitation wouldn't sit well with voters. "Last night weakened him," Gingrich told CBS' "This Morning" on Tuesday.

The first Southern primary could prove decisive in the volatile contest. Gingrich has virtually conceded that a victory for Romney in South Carolina would assure his nomination as Democratic President Barack Obama's Republican rival in the fall, and none of the other remaining contenders has challenged that conclusion.

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