Sharing a debate stage for the first time, Republicans Rick Perry and Mitt Romney sparred Wednesday night in a series of testy exchanges over jobs, Social Security and the proper tone of a candidate who presumes to lead the country.
The session at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley was the first to include the Texas governor, who has supplanted Romney as the presumptive GOP front-runner, and he was the focal point throughout most of the evening — though not always happily. At one point, the oft-targeted Perry compared himself to a piñata.
He did not, however, back down from his provocative stances on Social Security, which he likened to a Ponzi scheme, or climate change, which he challenged in the face of overwhelming evidence. "Let's find out what the science truly is before you put the American economy in jeopardy," Perry said.
Nor did he back away from raising collective eyebrows. "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," Perry said before he tartly dismissed President Obama's assertion that the U.S. border in Texas was safer than in the past.
"Either he has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country," Perry said, "or he was an abject liar to the American people."
The other six candidates on the stage often seemed like extras, visible but silent much of the time as Perry and Romney poked each other under prodding from the moderators, NBC news anchor Brian Williams and Politico editor John Harris.
The two candidates struck sparks practically from the start with a first exchange about jobs.
Perry touted the creation of 1 million positions in Texas and compared that with Romney's performance in his one term as Massachusetts governor. "The fact is … he had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country," Perry said. "As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts."
"Wait a second," Romney interjected. "The states are different."
He ticked off some of Perry's advantages, including GOP legislative majorities, a Republican Supreme Court and the fact that Texas has "a lot of oil and gas in the ground."
"Those are wonderful things," Romney continued, "but Gov. Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, why, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."
"Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry jabbed back, referring to former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis.
"Well, as a matter of fact," Romney replied, "George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor."
The two renewed their jostling when Perry was asked about statements in his blunt-spoken 2010 book, "Fed Up!," calling Social Security a fraud.
"It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years today you're paying into a program that's going to be there," Perry said. "Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."
Romney defended the program and scolded Perry for his language.
"You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it," Romney said. "Our nominee has to be someone who … isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but who is committed to saving Social Security."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. played the role of scold, saying his jobs record was far superior to Romney's and challenging, without using his name, Perry's statements on global warming.
"Listen," he said. "When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution — all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul tried to shoehorn himself into the debate by chiding Perry for proposing a controversial program that would have forced teen girls in Texas to receive a vaccination to prevent a sexually transmitted disease. "This is not good medicine.... It's not good social policy," Paul said.
In a rare bit of contrition, Perry suggested he could have handled the matter better by working more closely with the state Legislature, which overturned his directive. Also rare was Romney's response; he said that every governor makes mistakes and that Perry's words should speak for themselves.
For Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who shined in her first debate and turned combative in her second, the evening was a chance to reassert herself after falling under Perry's shadow. The two are competing for the same set of "tea party" and evangelical voters.
But she receded well into the background, reiterating her promise to fight to overturn Obama's healthcare plan and restating her opposition to U.S. involvement in Libya.
The debate came at an important juncture in the GOP presidential contest, which has picked up considerably since Perry's entrance in August. Several more debates are scheduled in the next few weeks, even as candidates are forced to bare their finances with the filing of their quarterly fundraising reports.
Among those already trailing in polls and fundraising, the debate provided little momentum. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum joined in piling on Perry by criticizing his actions on the teen vaccine. "Gov. Perry is out there … claiming about states' rights," Santorum said. "How about parental rights?"
Former businessman Herman Cain repeatedly advocated his "9-9-9 economic growth plan" to eliminate the current tax code and substitute a 9% tax on corporate and personal income taxes, coupled with a 9% national sales tax.
"If 10% is good enough for God," he said of tithing, "9% ought to be good enough for the federal government."
Newt Gingrich, scowling, upbraided the moderators as attempting to provoke a fight. "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 [and] protect Barack Obama," the former House speaker said.
The sentiment inspired prolonged applause from the invited guests inside the library's Air Force One Pavilion, which included Reagan's widow, Nancy. But his suggestion was largely ignored.
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.