The fight for the Republican presidential nomination began narrowing into an intense and ideological battle at a debate here Wednesday night, with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Mitt Romney sharply clashing over Social Security, health care and each other’s long-term prospect against President Obama.
Perry and Romney stood next to each other on the debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a setting that invoked the memory of the conservative Republican who swept to two terms as president.
And for much of the evening, the two men were at the center of the action, largely reducing their rivals to the roles of spectators looking for a way into the action.
The Republicans battled with each other to promote their records on jobs, a day before Obama makes a crucial speech to Congress on his plan to bring down the 9.1 percent jobless rate.
“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Mr. Perry said, referring to the former Democratic governor who ran for president in 1988. “Well, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Romney replied, “George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.”
These words made the crowd of Republicans burst into laughter. President Obama is to unveil a jobs plan on Thursday to try to bring down America’s chronically high unemployment rate, the main issue in the 2012 campaign.
“As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,” Perry said, fending off a question over whether many of those Texas jobs are low wage.
“Wait a second,” Romney interjected when the moderator sought to ask another question. Romney said Perry benefited from vast reserves of oil in a state that has no income tax, unlike Massachusetts.
“Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say those things, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.
The reality is there are differences between states. I came into a state that was in real trouble… I’m proud of what we were able to do in a tough situation.”
Perry declared Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” the kind of comment that Democrats can seize on as proof that the Texas governor would try to dismantle the popular government-run retirement program.
“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,” said Perry.
Governor Romney defended the popular entitlement program for seniors and allow him to appeal to independent voters who may well decide the 2012 election. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it,” Romney said.
Not surprisingly, the GOP contenders had little good to say about Obama, either his record on creating jobs or the health care law they have vowed to repeal if they win the White House.
Perry was an exception, volunteering his praise for the presidential order that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. military raid in Pakistan. He also said he was happy the U.S. prison at Guantanamo has been kept open.
Using harsh language, he said Obama is an “abject liar” if he believes the U.S. border with Mexico is stronger.
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who had hoped that her victory in the Iowa straw poll last month would place her among the top tier of candidates, struggled to break through during the exchanges. She, along with former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Herman Cain, a businessman, were asked far fewer questions than Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry.
“Basically this is another affirmation that the race has become a two-man contest,” said Matthew Dowd, a former campaign strategist for President George W. Bush. “Perry met the threshold and Romney stays in.”
Of Bachmann, Dowd said: “she disappeared off the podium.” Bachmann criticized Obama’s decision to join an international military campaign in Libya.
Bachman also said she would provide the “strong, bold leader in the presidency who will lead” the effort to repeal the health care law passed at Obama’s behest. “None of us should ever think that the repeal bill will just come to our desk,” she said in a pledge that drew applause from the audience. [via Huff Post, Reuters and The New York Times]