SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry wasted little time in going straight at each other Wednesday night, sparring over whether the former’s business experience or the latter’s decade as governor of Texas is better training for boosting jobs as the occupant of the White House.
“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” said Mr. Perry, referring to the former liberal Democratic governor who lost the 1988 presidential election.
“George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor,” retorted Mr. Romney, a one-term Massachusetts governor who made his fortune leading a capital investment firm, as he pointed to the man whom Mr. Perry succeeded in 2000.
With the Republican presidential nomination on the line, the GOP field squared off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in a nationally televised debate in which the candidates clawed at each other on their records and rhetoric amassed over years of government service.
But the moderators repeatedly brought the fight back to Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, the two front-runners in the national polls.
Mr. Perry took fire over his state’s low rankings on education, Texas’s record-breaking pace of executions of criminals, and his move as governor to try to have all 12-year-old girls in his state inoculated against a sexually transmitted disease — something he acknowledged he would have done differently now.
Meanwhile, Mr. Romney was blasted for his decision as governor to sign a health care law that includes an individual mandate that every resident of his state purchase health care or face a fine.
“It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country,” said Mr. Perry, while businessman Herman Cain said he had opposed former first lady Hillary Clinton’s 1990s health care plan, President Obama’s 2010 plan and “now I’m running against Romneycare.”
Mr. Romney said what worked in his state won’t work everywhere, and said one of his first acts as president would be to have his administration issue waivers to every state.
“I understand health care pretty darn well, having been through what I went through as a governor. And one thing I’d do on day one if I’m elected president is direct my secretary of Health and Human Services to put an executive order granting a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states,” he said.
As much as the candidates sparred among themselves, they saved their harshest criticism for Mr. Obama.
“Obamacare took over one-sixth of the economy,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican. “This is the issue of 2012, together with jobs. This is our window of opportunity. If we fail to repeal Obamacare in 2012, it will be with us forever, and it will be socialized medicine.”
For Mr. Perry, the debate was his first chance personally to mix things up with his fellow candidates, and to show Republican voters that he deserves the early adulation he’s received from many of them.
He seemed to stumble over a couple of answers when asked to square his past rhetoric with his stances as a presidential candidate, but had his strongest moments when he was defending his state’s specific record during his decade as governor.
He also didn’t back down on his criticism of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, and said that applied despite former Vice President Dick Cheney, who earlier Wednesday had suggested such language was over the top.
“If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program that we have in place today, and young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age, that is just a lie,” Mr. Perry said.
For Mr. Romney, the night was about trying to re-establish himself as the national front-runner and make the argument that as a successful businessman he is best-suited among the GOP field to take on Mr. Obama.
“If you’re thinking about what it takes to reshape and update the nation’s economy and to allow us to compete with China and other nations around the world, understanding how the economy works fundamentally is a credential I think is critical,” Mr. Romney said.
For the rest of the field on stage — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — it was a chance to try to distinguish themselves.
Mr. Huntsman took a shot at both front-runners, saying his jobs record was best.
“I have an offer for the two great governors over here. And I hate to rain on the parade of the great Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the No. 1 job creator in this country during my years of service,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Paul took repeated shots at Mr. Perry, governor of his home state, arguing he’s not as conservative as he seems, and honed in on the move to require 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated for HPV.
Forcing 12-year-old girls to take an inoculation to prevent this sexually transmitted disease, this is not good medicine,” said Mr. Paul, who is a medical doctor. “He did it with an executive order, passed it. The state was furious, and the Legislature overwhelmingly repealed.”
The size of the field made the 105-minute debate, aired live on MSNBC and sponsored by that network and Politico, somewhat unwieldy as it lurched from homeland security to health care to education to immigration.
The candidates were chosen based on their standings in polls. Only candidates who have announced they are seeking the nomination and who achieved 4 percent or more support in at least one major poll since the 2010 elections were invited.
That meant former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was not on stage, nor was former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson — some polls have even stopped asking voters about him. Meanwhile, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huntsman, all of whom poll in the low single digits, were allowed to participate.
The debate served as a curtain-raiser for Thursday, when Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major address on jobs to a joint session of Congress.
He had initially asked to speak Wednesday night, at the same time as the debate. But House Speaker John A. Boehner rejected that time slot, arguing the House was returning to session that night after a monthlong summer vacation, and wouldn’t have enough time to get everything ready to receive Mr. Obama.
The field will meet for two more debates this month, both scheduled in Florida.
Democrats say the debates are pulling the Republican field too far to the right in an effort to win over tea party supporters in the primary. On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee tried to tie the candidates to House Republicans’ budget plans, and said the kind of balanced budget the GOP supports would cost millions of jobs if it were imposed next year.
“It’s the holy grail of the tea party — an extreme wing of the Republican Party, which prioritizes slashing needed investments in infrastructure, research and development, education and health care, while protecting the wealthy and big oil from paying their fair share, over seniors, the middle class and job creation,” the DNC said in releasing a pre-debate memo on the House GOP’s budget plan.