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Romney, Perry keep up fight in debate

Clash on immigration and Social Security

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, with Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman at right, sparred last night over Social Security and the Massachusetts health care law, as each of the two front-runners sought to use his opponent’s own words against him. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, with Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman at right, sparred last night over Social Security and the Massachusetts health care law, as each of the two front-runners sought to use his opponent’s own words against him. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
By Michael Levenson and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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ORLANDO - Rick Perry and Mitt Romney laid bare their bitter rivalry last night, turning on each other during a GOP presidential debate with heated, personal attacks over their authenticity, commitment to conservative principles, and ability to lead the Republican Party to victory over President Obama in 2012.

Perry, whose sudden ascent onto the national scene has jolted the Republican presidential contest, was often the focus of the attacks from his rivals, who accused him of being soft on illegal immigration and of making dangerously cavalier statements about Social Security.

But seeming to rise up in indignation after nearly 90 minutes under fire, the Texas governor went on the offensive against Romney, his closest rival, whom he accused of repeatedly shifting positions to fit the political winds.

“I just think Americans sometimes don’t know which Mitt Romney they’re getting,’’ Perry said, accusing the former Massachusetts governor of changing his views on abortion, health care, and gun rights. “We’ll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.’’

“Nice try,’’ Romney shot back. He said his positions are clearly explained in his book, “No Apology.’’

“In my view, I’m going to stand by my positions, I’m proud of them,’’ Romney said. “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me, a lot of reasons not to elect other people on this stage. But one reason to elect me is I know what I stand for, I’ve written it down, words have meaning, and I have the experience to get this country going again.’’

Escalating a line of attack he has been honing for several weeks, Romney hammered Perry for arguing in his book “Fed Up!’’ that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme’’ and for contending that it should be run by the states, not the federal government.

“You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,’’ Romney said. He said later that even though Perry released the book six months ago, “You are already retreating from the positions that were in that book.’’

“Not an inch, sir,’’ Perry retorted.

The bitter two-hour debate on the Fox News Channel underscored the extent to which Perry’s surge has forced his rivals to go on the attack, five months before the first primary voters head to the polls. Romney in particular has been trying to cast Perry as too far out of the mainstream to beat Obama in the general election, while Perry has been accusing Romney of being too liberal to win the Republican primary.

The debate seemed at times to be a two-man fight. But the other candidates had their moments.

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, whose early momentum has been blunted by Perry’s rise, resurrected her criticism of the Texas governor for requiring schoolgirls in his state to get a vaccine against the human papillomavirus.

Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who has been excluded from most previous debates, injected some humor into the night, asserting that, “My next door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready projects than this current administration.’’

Representative Ron Paul of Texas won applause for his strong opposition to abortion rights. “I would say no one can outdo me on respect for life,’’ said Paul, an obstetrician. “I have spent a lifetime dealing with life.’’

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, subjected Perry to an extended scolding over illegal immigration. He laced into the governor for signing a law that allows illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities.

“Why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country?’’ Santorum said.

Romney also pounced on the issue. As governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed similar legislation in 2004.

“It makes no sense,’’ Romney said, asserting the Texas law gives a student who is in the country illegally “nearly a $100,000 discount,’’ over the tuition rates paid by US citizens who live outside of Texas.

Perry, however, did not back away from the law, even though it is deeply unpopular among Republican voters. In remarks that drew scattered boos from the audience at the Orange County Convention Center, he argued the law helps young illegal immigrants become productive members of society.

“If you say that we should not educate children coming into our state, brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,’’ Perry said. “We need to be educating these children because [if not] they will become a drag on our society.’’

Perry also sought to turn Romney’s own words against him.

He pointed out that, in the hardcover version of Romney’s book, “No Apology,’’ Romney hailed the Massachusetts health care law, writing, “we can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care.’’ But he criticized Romney for expunging that statement from a later paperback version of his book, which was released after Obama’s health care law sparked Republican protests. Romney now says he would, if elected, grant waivers to states to opt out of the law.

Questions came at times from videos submitted over YouTube. In one of them, a gay solider who had been deployed to Iraq was booed by audience members in the convention center after he asked the candidates if they would reinstitute the recently abolished “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that bars openly gay people from serving in the military.

Hours before the Republicans took the stage, they appeared in a nearby hotel banquet hall and made direct appeals to hundreds of religious and social conservatives attending a meeting of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.

Romney, accompanied on stage by his wife, Ann, sought to connect with the crowd by stressing family, but not faith. While his rivals frequently invoked their religious convictions, Romney did not mention religion once in his eight-minute speech to the group, avoiding a sensitive subject given that his Mormonism is viewed with suspicion by some evangelical Christians.

Instead, Romney focused almost exclusively on the same boilerplate economic themes he discusses at every stop on the campaign trail. He was greeted warmly, but not as enthusiastically, as some of his rivals who trumpeted religious themes.

Paul peppered his speech with references to the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Elijah. Santorum boasted that Time magazine had named him as one of the country’s top 25 evangelicals in 2005 (even though he is Catholic). Bachmann greeted the crowd as a “family reunion.’’

Perry, too, spoke openly of the role religion plays in guiding his views.

“My concern is not whether God is on my side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,’’ he said. “As I campaign for president, I not only ask for your vote and support, but I ask for your prayers.’’

No one energized the crowd more than Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who was greeted with a standing ovation. Using a preacher’s cadences and a thunderous voice, he worked the crowd into an emotional high, sparking applause and shouts of “Amen!’’

“It’s time to thrive and not just survive!’’ Cain said. “Let’s push that shining city on a hill back to the hilltop and put ‘united’ back into the United States of America.’’

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, was the only candidate not to speak at the Faith and Freedom event.

Florida is playing an increasingly large role in the nominating contest, and the candidates have converged for several days of fund-raisers and speeches, in addition to the debate. The state is far larger and more diverse than many of the other early primary states, offering an early test at how a candidate might fare nationwide.

A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday indicates that Florida Republicans currently favor Perry, at 31 percent to Romney’s 22 percent.

But when the poll included all Florida voters regardless of party, Romney fared better against President Obama in a general election. He leads the president by 7 percentage points, while Perry trails by 2 points.

The poll also found that only 33 percent of voters in Florida, which has the nation’s highest concentration of senior citizens, say it is fair to use Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.’’ Among Republicans, 52 percent say that is a fair description.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com; Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.