- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Eager to tangle, Republican presidential rivals Rick Perry and Mitt Romney each laid claim to a better job-creating record as governor Wednesday night in a campaign debate that marked a new turn in the race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama next year.

“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry jabbed, referring to Romney’s predecessor as Democratic governor in Massachusetts.

“As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did,” Romney shot back at Perry, the newcomer to the race who has quickly laid claim to the front-runner’s mantle.

The debate was the first of three in as many weeks, at a time the polls show Obama’s popularity sinking, possibly making the GOP nomination worth more than it appeared only a few months ago.