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CAMPAIGN 2012

Perry, Romney spar in debate

Frontrunners meet on stage for first time

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, after weeks of subtle jabs at each other on the campaign trail, abandoned all prior graciousness during a debate last night and began vigorously squaring off over Social Security, health care, and who has the best record as a job creator.

One of the most heated exchanges came over the future of Social Security as an entitlement program for seniors.

Perry, making his debut on the GOP debate stage, referred to the program as “a monstrous lie’’ and a “Ponzi scheme’’ because of predicted funding shortfalls.

“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25- or 30-years-old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there,’’ said Perry, the governor of Texas. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.’’

Romney disagreed, trying to make an appeal to elderly voters who rely on Social Security checks to make ends meet.

“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but someone committed to saving Social Security,’’ he said. “We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need, and our seniors have the need of Social Security. I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure.’’

With pressure building as they try to differentiate themselves, the barbs flew among the eight candidates during the liveliest GOP debate to date. The stakes have gotten higher as President Obama’s polling numbers have continued to drop, making him seem more vulnerable.

Last night’s debate put the differences among the candidates on sharp display, illustrating the stark choices that Republican primary voters will begin making in five months.

The debate had barely begun when Romney and Perry, the leaders in recent polls, clashed over their job-creation records. “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,’’ said Perry.

He later added, referring to the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee, “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.’’

“As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor,’’ Romney retorted to Perry, who has stolen Romney’s mantle as the GOP front-runner.

Romney’s record on health care came under renewed scrutiny, with no candidate on the stage approving of Romney’s decision to support a mandate that Massachusetts residents obtain health insurance. When asked if anyone thought the Massachusetts health care law was a good model for other states, no one raised a hand.

“It was a great opportunity for us to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate for this country,’’ Perry said.

The sharp exchanges prompted some calls for unity.

“I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other,’’ former House speaker Newt Gingrich told the moderators, Politico’s John Harris and NBC’s Brian Williams.

The debate came ahead of Obama’s economic address before a joint session of Congress tonight, and the candidates sought to preemptively criticize any proposals he might have and cast themselves as the most able to nurse the economy back to life.

It was held at a veritable GOP shrine, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and had a boisterous crowd. When Williams mentioned that Perry’s home state has executed 234 death row inmates, the audience broke into loud applause.

The debate was an important national introduction for Perry, who has surged to the top of the polls just weeks after starting his campaign but still remains untested on a national stage. It was an opportunity for him to signal to donors and the GOP establishment that he could withstand the pressure and the scrutiny.

Much of the focus was on Romney and Perry, who were face-to-face for the first time after a week of trading less overt attacks. Romney generally escaped major challenges during the earlier debates, but last night was forced both to be more aggressive with his own approach and to fend off new attacks. It was clear that his campaign was focused on Perry, sending out numerous press releases challenging many of Perry’s comments.

Representative Michele Bachmann, who has won plaudits for her past debate performances, has struggled to gain traction since winning the Iowa Straw Poll last month. Several top advisers have stepped down, and she has been largely overshadowed by Romney and Perry. It was 14 minutes into the debate last night before she got her first opportunity to speak.

Similarly, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has been unable to get out of the basement in polls, and after an unremarkable performance in his first debate last month needs to show signs of life. He had several energetic moments and attempted to single out Perry for his skepticism of climate change and evolution.

“When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science,’’ Huntsman said.

“The science is not settled on this,’’ Perry said. “Here is the fact: Galileo got outvoted for a spell.’’

Also appearing on stage were former businessman Herman Cain; Representative Ron Paul of Texas; and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

After months of uncertainty over who would run for the Republican nomination, last night’s debate marked the first time that the field appeared set and that the nominee would be chosen from among those on the stage. The biggest remaining possible addition to the field is former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has sent mixed messages about her plans.

The debate also kick-started a busy month of GOP face-offs that could begin to winnow the field. The candidates will debate twice over the next two weeks in the key swing state of Florida.

Lately, Romney has taken a more aggressive posture, trying to set the terms of the debate while also reaching out to the Tea Party movement, which he had generally avoided until now. He outlined his economic plan Tuesday in North Las Vegas, trying to put his own stamp on the topic voters say they care most about.

He has also increasingly highlighted his business background, as he largely downplays his experience as governor of Massachusetts and tweaks Perry by saying current problems cannot be solved by “career politicians.’’

“Look, if I’d spent my whole life in government I wouldn’t be running for president right now,’’ Romney, who lost a US Senate election in 1994 and a race for the GOP nomination for president in 2008, said in a jab at Perry’s 25 years in elected office. “It’s a fine profession, and if someone were looking to how we should restructure government, maybe that’s the best background. If you’re looking at what it takes to reshape and update America’s economy, understanding how the economy works fundamentally is a credential I think is critical.’’

Perry and Huntsman have both highlighted their job-creation records as governors of their respective states, while criticizing Romney’s. During Romney’s four-year term, Massachusetts ranked 47th in the nation on job creation.

“In Utah, we were the number one job creator,’’ Huntsman said. “To my friend Mitt: 47th just isn’t going to cut it.’’

When Perry began touting the Texas job-creation record, Romney cited the Lone Star State’s natural resources and a government dominated by Republicans.

“Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,’’ Romney said. “If he tried to say that, it would be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet.’’

What Romney left unsaid was that Perry - who was once a registered Democrat - was a top Texas supporter of Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.