In Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney stumbled badly when asked if he’d release his tax returns. The obvious dissembling was painful to watch: “[Y]ou know, if that’s been the tradition and I’m not opposed to doing that, time will tell. But I anticipate that most likely I am going to get asked to do that around the April time period and I’ll keep that open.”

After several days in which Romney’s hidden returns have generated increased attention, he had to know it would be a major topic of conversation in last night’s debate. And yet, the Republican frontrunner stumbled yet again.

YouTube video

Pay particular attention to what happens around the 5:05 mark in this clip: Romney was actually booed and heckled by the Republican audience, which was apparently exasperated by the former governor’s evasiveness.

After having several days to come up with the best possible answer, Romney began by saying he’ll “probably” release the tax materials from previous years, and then explained why, at least for now, he prefers secrecy and non-disclosure:

“I know that’s what’s going to come. Every time the Democrats are out there trying their very best to — to try and attack people because they’ve been successful. And — and I have been successful.”

In other words, Romney wants to hide information from the public to prevent people from learning the truth and criticizing him. He said the exact same thing in December when asked why he purged his gubernatorial administration’s email records in advance of his presidential campaign — Romney admitted the move was intended to hide official correspondence from the public and keep potentially-embarrassing information from “opposition research” teams.

This is ridiculous on its face. A candidate who preaches transparency shouldn’t be able to keep records secret just because people might be mean to him. Scrutiny and criticism is supposed to be part of the process, making Romney’s answer rather pathetic.

CNN’s John King reminded Romney that his father released 12 years of returns and asked if he’d meet his father’s standard. The Republican frontrunner responded, “Maybe,” and then proceeded to dissemble a bit more.

Newt Gingrich, who released his returns during the debate, told the audience, “[I]f there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination. And if there’s nothing in there, why not release it?”

The fact that Romney still can’t answer that question coherently should be of great concern to Republican voters. The fact that Romney has suddenly forgotten how to be a competent debater should be of great concern to his Republican supporters.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.