Appearing together for the first time on a debate stage, the two leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination squared off Wednesday over the question most likely to shape the race: Who is better equipped to restart the country’s economy?

Seizing the spotlight in his national debate debut was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has vaulted to a lead in the polls over onetime front-runner Mitt Romney since joining the race three weeks ago.

Although Perry has had relatively little experience in such a setting, he was at ease — and occasionally combative. The Texas governor appeared unflustered and unapologetic as he took fire on his record and on some of the inflammatory statements he has made.

After declaring Social Security “a monstrous lie to our kids” and “a Ponzi scheme,” Perry added: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”

Where the candidates sparred most directly, however, was over the issue of job creation.

“We put the model in place in the state of Texas. When you look at what we have done over the last decade, we created 1 million jobs,” Perry said, contending that Texas has generated more jobs in the past three months than Massachusetts did in the four years it was governed by Romney. Perry added that under Romney, Massachusetts “had one of the lowest job-creation rates in the country.”

Romney shot back that Texas — unlike Massachusetts — has been blessed with abundant natural resources, low taxes and a long-standing regulatory environment that is friendly to business.

“Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet” — a reference to a famous misquote that Republicans have long used to criticize the former vice president.

Romney said his success in the business world — something Perry does not share aside from a stint as a family farmer — has given him experience “succeeding, failing, competing around the world [and] the capacity to help get this economy going again.”

Unlike in previous debates, in which he has largely been unscathed, Romney was roughed up by his rivals.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who has been struggling to register in the polls, seemed particularly eager to take on Romney and Perry.

“I hate to rain on the parade of the Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the number one job creator in this country during my years of service,” Huntsman said.

Referring to where Romney’s state ranked during that same period, Huntsman added: “To my good friend Mitt, 47 just ain’t going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first.”

In addition to confronting one another, the candidates were framing their arguments with an eye to the speech on job creation that President Obama is scheduled to give Thursday night before a joint session of Congress.

Romney tried to get a jump on his Republican rivals and Obama by releasing a 59-point economic plan the day before the debate.

Among the other issues raised in the two-hour exchange was Perry’s unsuccessful effort to require that sixth-grade girls in Texas be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus — a move that angered social conservatives, who said it would encourage promiscuity. Perry has since said the idea was a mistake.

Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who is a trained OB-GYN, said Perry’s action was “not good medicine and “not good social policy.”

But Romney defended Perry’s intentions, if not his actions, saying: “We’ve each taken a mulligan or two. . . . He went about it in the wrong way, but I think his heart was in the right place.”

On Social Security, Perry stood by what he espoused in his book, “Fed Up!” — views from which his aides have tried to distance him.

Romney contended that it is a crippling liability for Perry to have declared Social Security “a failure,” adding that “you can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who’ve lived on Social Security. . . . Under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it’s a failure.”

Perry was on the defensive several times about some of the less attractive elements of the economic picture in Texas: that it has a relatively steep high school dropout rate, that it has the largest percentage of residents lacking health insurance, that half the states in the country have lower unemployment rates, and that it has a relatively high proportion of low-wage jobs.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done in the state of Texas,” he said, “and for the White House or anyone else to be criticizing creation of jobs now in America, I think is a little bit hypocritical.”

Romney’s Massachusetts health-care program — which Obama has often cited as a model for the new federal law that is conservatives’ chief grievance against the current administration — was once again a target on Wednesday.

When the candidates were asked whether anyone onstage agreed with Romney’s statement in his 2008 presidential race that his Massachusetts law was a “great opportunity for us as a country,” no one raised a hand.

Perry called it “a great opportunity for us to see what in this country does not work.”

The Texas governor was on the defensive over his belief that the science behind climate change “is not settled.” He added, “Just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said, ‘Here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. . . . Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.”

But Huntsman said of the Republican Party: “We can’t run from science. We can’t run from mainstream conservative philosophy. We’ve got to win voters.”

Meanwhile, any momentum that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who won the Iowa straw poll in August, may have had from that victory has been extinguished by Perry.

The debates have been a forum in which Bachmann has shone, but she was sidelined on Wednesday night.

She was not asked a question until 14 minutes into the debate, and during an exchange on health care, she shouted for a chance to speak — only to be told that it was Huntsman’s turn.

Also participating were three other candidates: former God­father’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Wednesday’s debate, which was co-sponsored by NBC News and Politico, was fraught with symbolic significance, given that it was set at the the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in what would have been the 40th president’s centennial year.

Reagan’s widow, Nancy, 90, sat in the front row, wearing her signature red.

There were frequent references to Reagan’s legacy as a touchstone for the right and as the figure who helped lead a conservative realignment in the country.

Whether Perry’s surge is a sign of a true shake-up in the race, or the political equivalent of a sugar high, is likely to be tested over the next month as the contest enters a more intense phase.


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