In the battle for the right to face President Barack Obama in the elections next November, a USA Today/Gallup poll on Wednesday showed Mr Perry leading Mr Romney by 31 per cent to 24 per cent among likely Republican voters.
Speaking on GOP debate Thursday night, Mr. Romney joined Mr. Perry in criticizing President Obama. He was questioning the administration’s efforts in creating jobs. “President Obama has done everything wrong,” Mr. Romney said. “I happen to believe to create jobs, it helps to have had a job. And I have.”
Mr. Perry blasted President Obama for his handling of Israeli-Palestinian relations on Tuesday and accused the president of a “policy of appeasement” toward the Palestinians that he said was undermining U.S. security interests in the Middle East.
Then Mr Romney asked that Mr Perry to explain whether he would dismantle Social Security, the state benefits programme for the elderly and disabled. Mr Perry responded that he would keep the programme for those about to retire and overhaul it for younger workers.
Mr. Romney cited a passage from Mr. Perry’s book “Fed Up!” and said that the Texas governor had suggested that state or local governments be allowed to run their own Social Security programs. He accused Mr. Perry of running away from his own words.
Mr. Romney said: “There’s a Rick Perry out there that is saying – and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
As the exchanged continued, Mr. Perry joked, “It’s kind of badminton” and swung his arm.
Mr. Romney had managed to emerge relatively unharmed from the past few debates, and the pressure was on Mr. Perry to change that. If Mr. Perry’s key line was meant to be a solid punch to the jaw, he seemed to rush it and stumble a bit.
“Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of — against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before — he was before the social programs from the standpoint of — he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first — Roe v. Wade?” Mr. Perry said. “I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow to see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
“Him, he was for Race to the Top. He’s for ‘Obamacare’ and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and, and, and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
Mr Romney responded crisply that this was a “nice try” but wouldn’t wash. “Governor, I wrote a book two years ago and I laid out in that a book what my views are on a wide range of issues.”
The debate, held at the Orange County Convention Center and sponsored by Fox News, Google and the Republican Party of Florida, featured robust audience participation and questions submitted via YouTube.
The 5,000 people there responded loudly at times, including boos during a question from a gay solider about the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian service members.
During debate host Megyn Kelly dropped a YouTube clip on Rick Santorum: a question from Stephen Hill, a soldier in Iraq who, up until this week, had to “lie about who [he] was” in order to serve in the army.
Santorum answered: “I would say any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military. The fact they are making a point to include it as a provision within the military that we are going to recognize a group of people and give them a special privilege to, and removing don’t ask don’t tell. I think tries to inject social policy into the military. And the military’s job is to do one thing: to defend our country…”
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota tried to break through at the debates, but she took a question from moderators that she might have wanted to avoid.
She was asked why, in attacking Mr. Perry for requiring that sixth-grade girls take a vaccine against a virus linked to cervical cancer, she wrongly declared that the vaccine could cause mental retardation.
Ms. Bachmann responded that she was merely relating a story a mother had told her, and she again noted that Mr. Perry’s former chief of staff had been a lobbyist for the vaccine’s maker, Merck.
Mr. Gingrich chided the moderators for some of their questions and sought to turn the conversation to a serious of discussion of policy. He previewed his plan to outline a 21st-century “Contract With America,” the document that he used to win the House majority in the 1990s.