Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Orlando, Fla., and San Francisco — After taking heat from the rest of the GOP presidential field in the last two debates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to take the offensive against his main rival Thursday night by questioning Mitt Romney's views on education and accusing him of misrepresenting Perry's stance on Social Security.
Reviving a charge that has dogged Romney since his 2008 presidential campaign, Perry said the former Massachusetts governor had switched positions on issues of importance to Republican voters — and thus, he implied, would be an undependable nominee.
"We'll wait until tomorrow and — and — and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight," Perry said, after stumbling through a litany of positions he said Romney had taken on different sides of the issues of gun rights, abortion and healthcare.
Romney looked on blank-faced. "Nice try," he responded. He then renewed his charge that Perry had backed away from the Social Security stance outlined in his 2010 book.
"Not an inch, sir," Perry replied.
Romney suggested it was Perry who should worry about flip-flopping charges: "There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying that … the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional. So you'd better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
Romney insisted he was unshakable.
"One reason to elect me is that I know what I stand for; I've written it down," he said of his own campaign book, published two years ago. "Words have meaning, and I have the experience to get this country going again."
Throughout the two-hour debate, Perry stiffened his resistance to criticism of his record on immigration and government mandates, refusing to back away from his support for tuition assistance for children of illegal immigrants and his order to require HPV vaccinations for young girls.
"I don't think you have a heart," Perry said of his critics. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew applause from the audience of 5,000 GOP activists at the Orange County Convention Center when he said that the problem with the Texas program, which has provided in-state tuition to thousands of children of illegal immigrants, is that it amounts to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of illegal immigration.
As for his mandate that sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease, Perry riffed on an old country-music line. "I don't know what part of 'opt-out' most parents don't get," he said. (The order was blocked by the Texas Legislature.)
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that in issuing the mandate, Perry had "made a decision where he gave parental rights to a big drug company."
The exchanges between the leading GOP contenders dominated the two-hour debate, cosponsored by Fox News and Google, in the battleground state of Florida. Perry is new to debating at the presidential level, and his performance was less fluid than Romney's, particularly in the last half of the gathering.
At one point Perry appeared less than sure-footed when presented with a hypothetical: What would he do if awakened at 3 a.m. in the White House with word that Pakistan had lost control of its nuclear weapons to the Taliban? The governor responded by discussing the importance of strengthening relationships in the region, then talked about seeking assistance from India, Pakistan's archenemy.
Perry and Romney's dual criticisms were so pronounced that at one point former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said there was a danger the duo would "bludgeon each other to death."
Early on, Perry leapt on a remark Romney had made at a recent campaign stop in Miami in which he praised President Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, for doing "some good things." In accusing Romney of supporting the Obama administration's "race to the top" program, Perry added: "That is not conservative."
But Romney said he did not know what Perry was talking about, adding that he did approve of the administration's efforts to remove bad teachers from the classroom.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, making his first GOP debate appearance since a South Carolina forum in early May as he vies for libertarian support with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, made a minor mark, drawing the biggest laugh of the night when he said that his neighbor's dogs had created more shovel-ready jobs than the Obama administration. A similar line was used earlier in the day by talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.
The event ended on a light note when the nine candidates, answering one of many video questions submitted over the Internet, were asked which rival they would choose as a running mate.
Perry said he would "take Herman Cain and mate him up with Newt Gingrich," prompting Romney to remark that he would have a hard time getting that image out of his mind.
The debate was the third in the 15 days and the sixth of the campaign. On Friday, the candidates will give short speeches to a conference of conservative activists at the same Orlando convention center.
At the moment, the Republican contest in Florida, the biggest early-voting state, is a two-man race. A new statewide poll showed Perry leading Romney by 31% to 22% among Republican voters. None of the other candidates was in double digits. The margin of error in the Quinnipiac University survey was 5%.
West reported from Orlando and Barabak from San Francisco.