No More Mr. Nice Guys: Rick Perry and Mitt Romney Square Off at GOP Debate

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — On his first night as a presidential debater, Rick Perry did not shy away from a fight. The Texas governor, who has gone from a newly announced candidate to the Republican front-runner in less than a month, sliced into rival Mitt Romney’s job-creation record in Massachusetts.

Perry said that while Romney did a “great job of creating jobs in the private sector,” his record as governor did not match.

“As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in the four years in Massachusetts,” Perry said, adding an even sharper accusation: “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.”

But Romney came prepared to give as good as he got, implying that Perry could not claim sole credit for Texas’ job creation record, which is a centerpiece of the governor’s pitch to Republican voters.

“States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax, Texas is a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court,” Romney said. “Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground, those are wonderful things, but the governor doesn’t believe he created those things.  If he tried to say that, it’d be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet.”

Perry endorsed Al Gore for President in 1988 , back when he was a Democrat.

But Romney didn’t stop there, retaliating at Perry for his accusation that Dukakis, the former Democratic governor of Massachusetts, was a more effective job creator: “George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor,” Romney said.

“That’s not correct,” Perry shot back.

“That is correct,” Romney insisted.

The exchange represented the first face-to-face sparring match between the two top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, and the debate marked a significant departure from previous matchups. The candidates spent as much time contrasting their own records as they did attacking President Obama.

Perry rejected the criticism leveled at him by high-profile Republicans such as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who took shots at the Texas governor in interviews with ABC News Wednesday . Rove called Perry’s dim view of Social Security “toxic,” and Cheney said the Texan used “inappropriate” and “over-the-top” language when it came to Ben Bernanke’s leadership at the Federal Reserve.

“Karl’s been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks,” Perry said, “so, you know, I’m not responsible for Karl anymore.”

At the debate, Perry stood by the comment he frequently makes on the campaign trail; that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “failure.”

Perry went so far as to suggest that Vice President Dick Cheney was a liar for the swipes he took at Perry in an interview with ABC News before the debate. Cheney called Social Security “a program that a great many people depend upon.”

Read ABC News’ Interview with Dick Cheney.

“If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program we have in place today and young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and expect for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age,” Perry said, “that is just a lie and I don’t care what anyone says.”

Perry added, “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”

Romney used the exchange to try to paint Perry’s views on the entitlement program as out of the mainstream of the Republican Party.

“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security,” he said, “but who is committed to saving Social Security.”

At the debate, sponsored by NBC News and Politico and held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the candidates wasted little time setting aside Reagan’s so-called 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

Newt Gingrich, however, would not take the bait when Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, one of the moderators of Wednesday’s  debate, invited him to contrast Romney’s and Perry’s differing approaches to health care reform in each of their states.

“I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other,” Gingrich said. “Let me just say, I for one and I hope all of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. And all of us are committed as a team. Whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.”

And although the GOP candidates spent significant time taking shots at each other, President Obama, who plans to deliver a major address to a joint session of Congress Thursday night, remained a target.

“He doesn’t have a clue how to get this country working again,” Romney said of Obama.

Businessman Herman Cain said, “This is a president as committed to class warfare and so committed to bureaucratic socialism that he can’t possibly be effective on jobs.”

Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, stressed her promise not to rest “until I repeal Obamacare.”

“With all due respect to the governors, issuing an executive order will not overturn this massive law,” Bachmann said. “This will take a very strong bold leader in the presidency who will lead that effort.”

Perry entered his first sparring session of the presidential race with little previous debate experience. In his decade as governor, he participated in only five debates and refused to debate his Democratic opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

He did not back down from any of the controversial statements he has been making on the campaign trail: from his tough talk on entitlements to the doubt he has been casting on the scientists who say global warming is human-caused.

“Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact,” Perry said, “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

Tonight’s debate was the first in a series of three such contests that will occur in rapid succession. With two more debates scheduled this month, September is emerging as a critical proving ground for the candidates as Perry and Romney compete at the top of national polls and other candidates fight for recognition in the crowded field.

The two leading contenders also leveled attacks at each other on their health care records.

“I’ll tell you what the people in the state of Texas don’t want , a health care plan like what Gov. Romney put  in place in Massachusetts,” Perry said.

Romney, whose Massachusetts health care plan has received damning praise from the White House  for being an inspiration for President Obama’s own policy, chose to focus his fire on the president.

“His plan is taking over 100 percent of the people, and the American people don’t like it and should vote it down,” he said.

Here is ABC News’ report Card on the three governors’ health care track record.

As the candidates debated, their campaigns were busy blasting out a flurry of statements leveling attacks and fact-checks.

One release from the Romney campaign landed in reporters’ in-boxes with a blaring headline: “PERRY DOES NOT BELIEVE SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD EXIST.” Another from the campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul sought to expose “Perry’s Real Liberal Past.”

The Perry campaign distributed a series of charts titled “Setting the Record Straight on Texas Job Growth,” purporting to show that, “Under Gov. Rick Perry, Texas outpaced the nation in job growth by twice as much as under Gov. George W. Bush.”

Tonight — on stage and off — it was Perry, the newest comer to the presidential race, who clearly had the biggest target on his back.

“I kind of feel like a piñata here at the party,” Perry said.