Rick Perry and Mitt Romney clashed from the opening bell of a Republican presidential candidates’ debate Wednesday, challenging each other on job creation, health care and Social Security in pointed exchanges that signaled their burgeoning rivalry is likely to dominate the contest in the months ahead.
Mr. Perry, the governor of Texas, used his first appearance in a nationally televised debate to introduce himself with Lone Star bravado, saying his state’s strong job growth came from its commitment to low taxation and regulation. He questioned the science behind global warming and called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
“We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,” Mr. Perry said at the outset of the debate, referring to Mr. Romney, the former Bay State governor, who stood next to him on the stage.
The sparring between the two front-runners animated the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., but nearly all of Mr. Perry’s rivals sought to throw him on the defensive. The Texas governor was confronted on Texas’ low high-school graduation rates, his education budget cuts and his decision to mandate the vaccination of girls for a sexually transmitted virus—a mandate that was later overturned by the state legislature.Mr. Romney shot back, noting how Texas has no state income tax, a Republican legislature and “a lot of oil and gas in the ground.” For Mr. Perry to claim credit for the state’s good fortune, he said, “would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”
Mr. Perry called it “a monstrous lie” to tell young workers that the Social Security taxes they pay will come back to them in retirement benefits. Mr. Romney retorted that his rival’s position on Social Security could disqualify him as the GOP nominee.
“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but who is committed to saving Social Security,” Mr. Romney said. “Under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it’s a failure.”
Mr. Perry’s quick rise in the polls has prompted Mr. Romney, who had long been seen as the front-runner, to alter his campaign and become more aggressive in attacking his GOP rivals, a tactic he had avoided through most of the summer.
After the debate, aides to Mr. Romney signaled that they would continue to press the idea that Mr. Perry’s views on Social Security were a liability for the party.
Perry advisers, for their part, said the governor wasn’t backing down from his views on the retirement program. “Most Americans agree Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and we need to fix that,” said Rob Johnson, manager of the Perry campaign.”There has never been a successful modern candidate who has made his platform the abolition of Social Security,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser. “I don’t think it’s a winning message in a Republican primary, and I certainly don’t think it’s a winning message in a general election.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who now share third and fourth place in most national polls, have also been rattled by Mr. Perry’s entry in the race.
Joining them on the stage were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former pizza magnate Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, all of whom continue to lag far behind in the polls.
The debate appeared to solidify that the GOP race has become, at least for now, a contest between Messrs. Perry and Romney. That is bad news for Mrs. Bachmann, who had used her two previous debate performances to jump into the top tier of the GOP field and to win a straw poll last month in Iowa. She has since seen her poll numbers and the momentum of her campaign fade.
Mrs. Bachmann repeated her assertion that she was the first in Congress to call for a repeal of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul and cautioned Messrs. Romney and Perry that no president will be able to overturn the law with an executive order, as both have promised. “Issuing an executive order will not overturn this massive law. This will take a very strong, bold leader in the presidency who will lead that effort,” she said.
Mr. Paul, a Libertarian icon, continued his unlikely efforts to scramble the terms of the Republican policy conversation. He suggested cutting off funds for air conditioning in Iraq to force home U.S. troops there and stood by his calls to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
After others called for tougher border controls, Mr. Paul suggested the fight against illegal immigration was misguided. “A barbed wire fence with machine guns—that would do the trick? I don’t think that’s what America is about,” he said.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke served as a foil for the candidates. Mr. Romney said he would seek to replace him. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called him “the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chairman in the history of the Fed,” though inflation remains relatively low today.
Gov. Perry mixed sharp barbs at President Obama with surprising acknowledgments. He thanked Mr. Obama for keeping open the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “against the will of his [political] base.”
But in the night’s sharpest attack on the president, Mr. Perry challenged Mr. Obama’s statement that the Texas border with Mexico was safer than ever. “Either he has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country, or he was an abject liar,” the governor said.
The event ended with a mini-debate on climate change and the causes of global warming.
Mr. Huntsman said 98% of scientists saw a human role in climate change, and that the GOP should recognize that role. “All I am saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science, we can’t run from mainstream society.”
Mr. Perry offered a skeptical view, saying scientists had yet to prove the significance of global warming. “The idea that we would put America’s economy in jeopardy based on a scientific theory that is not settled is nonsense,” Mr. Perry said.