The full-throated sparring between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry during the Republican debate on Wednesday night provided an early glimpse of the very different strategies that will propel their presidential campaigns forward in the next several months.
Mr. Perry, the governor of Texas, made clear in his first national appearance that he would campaign as an unabashed Southern conservative who is unafraid to speak bluntly, would double-down on controversial statements and planned to shrug off the concerns of the Republican establishment.
By contrast, Mr. Romney’s performance showed his desire to appeal broadly to Republicans as part of an electability argument that he hopes will convince primary voters that he is best equipped to defeat President Obama.
Taken together, the performances in Simi Valley, Calif., were a kind of political science lesson in the very different paths that might lead to the White House. And Thursday, the two sides continued jabbing at each other, with the Romney campaign calling Mr. Perry “reckless, wrong on Social Security,” while Mr. Perry said the party needed “a nominee that doesn’t blur the lines between themselves and the current president of the White House.”
The back-and-forth came after weeks of shadow-boxing between the two on the campaign trail. Now, those hostilities have burst into the open in exchanges that signal how the two intend to wage two distinctly different campaigns going forward.
Mr. Perry appears eager to run a campaign aimed squarely at the Republican base. His oratory is clearly meant to fire up evangelicals, the Tea Party, social conservatives and the Republican Party’s most committed voters — its traditional base — as a path to victory.
To that end, Mr. Perry did not back down Wednesday night from his assertion that Social Security was a failure, even in the face of direct criticism by Mr. Romney. Mr. Perry insisted that climate change science was “not settled.” And he got one of the biggest cheers of the night from the crowd by vowing that killers in Texas would “face the ultimate justice.”
Throughout, the governor’s tone was not apologetic or defensive. He seemed to care little about how he might be perceived by moderate Republicans or independents, even suggesting at one point that Mr. Obama might be an “abject liar.”
Mr. Romney took a different approach altogether, highlighting policies that he suggested would give Republicans the chance to beat Mr. Obama and offering a toned-down brand of conservatism that could be found acceptable by the widest possible audience.
He rejected Mr. Perry’s characterization of Social Security, saying that the program needed to be fixed, not dismantled. And he seemed eager to present a more unified Republican front in the battle against Mr. Obama, saying, “We have some differences between us, but we agree that this president’s got to go.”
Still, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, did not back away from some of his more conservative proposals, including his vow to issue an executive order to end the carrying out of Mr. Obama’s health care plan.
The strategies on display Wednesday night were driven in part by necessity, and in part by history.
Mr. Romney is hamstrung by his past as the governor of a liberal state and the more moderate positions he took as governor and as a candidate for the Senate. Trying to challenge Mr. Perry for the ideological soul of the conservative movement would seem inauthentic for Mr. Romney.
“If the Tea Party is for keeping government small and spending down, and helping us create jobs, then, hey, I’m for the Tea Party,” Mr. Romney said in a roundabout answer to the question of whether he is a member of the conservative political movement.
Mr. Perry, by contrast, has built a career in Texas that is anything but subtle. In two recent books, he laid out a starkly conservative agenda that would be difficult to back away from without being accused of crass political opportunism.
Both men used their records as governors to argue their cases to be president, especially when it came to the question of who would be better at creating jobs for Americans. But the Texas versus Massachusetts undercurrent was even more striking than the specifics of their accomplishments.
For the next several months, the Republican contest may shape up as a fundamental question for Republican voters as they seek a candidate to challenge Mr. Obama for the right to occupy the Oval Office: whether they want a Texas Republican or a Massachusetts one.