ORLANDO, Fla. — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have ratcheted up the attacks ahead of Thursday's debate here, where the two Republican heavyweights will square off on the same stage for the third time this campaign season and are expected to exchange blows over Social Security, jobs and their respective GOP credentials.
The feud between the Republican rivals is intensifying as the story line starts to solidify around national polls showing Mr. Perry, who is in his third term, and Mr. Romney running far ahead of the rest of their closest competitors, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
On Thursday, Mr. Romney questioned in a USA Today interview whether Mr. Perry was electable and also penned an op-ed for the Fox News website in which he critiqued Mr. Perry's views on the future of Social Security.
"Instead of repairing the program as I aim to do, he wants to dismantle it," Mr. Romney wrote before cherry-picking passages from Mr. Perry's book "Fed Up!" where he says the Texan makes it clear he thinks the program is unconstitutional, should be "dismantled and turned over to the states."
It was the latest in a series of jabs that the candidates have traded in the lead-up to the debate, in which Mr. Perry hopes to rebound from his at times shaky performances in the first two debates and Mr. Romney hopes to score some points in an attempt to chip away at Mr. Perry's front-runner status.
The rest of the pack, meanwhile, hopes to make a splash and dislodge the Perry versus Romney narrative that is dominating the national headlines. Recent history shows they have reason to keep plugging away.
At this time in 2007, a Realclearpolitics.com average of national polls showed former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson running ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain in the GOP nomination race.
The Romney camp started the tit for tat with Mr. Perry this week by issuing a press release that posed a handful of questions for Mr. Perry to answer regarding how Social Security would be transformed into a state-by-state program.
"Would states be free to forgo a pension program altogether?" the campaign asked. "If so, what if any provision would be made for the disabled and elderly in that state? Or would they be expected to move to other states with more generous benefits, inevitably overwhelming those systems?"
The Perry camp responded, saying that "Mr. Romney is again sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens."
"As he has so many times in the past, Mr. Romney seems to forget he's a Republican," said Ray Sullivan, a Perry spokesperson. "Mr. Romney has been running for president full time for nearly five years and has failed to issue a specific plan on Social Security. Rick Perry and other conservatives are courageous enough to be honest about federal spending and entitlements, whether Mr. Romney and the liberals like it or not."
In an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday, Mr. Perry repeated the attack.
"We need to nominate someone who has a stark, clear difference between the Republican nominee and President Obama," he said. "We don't need to nominate Obama-Lite."
The two Republicans also traded blows on each other's records on jobs, with the Romney camp contending the unemployment rate in Texas has doubled on Mr. Perry's watch and the Perry camp pointing out that Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during Mr. Romney's administration.
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