Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry,… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
The Republican contenders for the presidential nomination aimed their fire Thursday night at front-runner Rick Perry while several second-tier candidates tried to gain traction in the GOP field as they faced off at a debate in Orlando, Fla.
The initial moments were congenial, with the candidates skewering President Obama's economic policies, but they soon turned on one another. As they have in prior meetings, Mitt Romney and Perry jousted repeatedly, with Perry at one point comparing their exchanges to a game of badminton as he gestured as though he were swinging a racket.
Romney criticized Perry for saying that Social Security was unconstitutional as a federal matter and ought to be handled by the states, a claim the Texas governor denied. Throughout the evening, Perry repeatedly accused the former Massachusetts governor of flip-flopping.
"This is not the first time that Mitt's been wrong on issues. We never said we are going to move this back to the states," Perry said, arguing that he was discussing state workers, as they had in Massachusetts.
Romney replied that Perry's words now are different than they were months ago, when his book "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington" came out.
"There is a Rick Perry out there that's saying … that [the] federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, and it's unconstitutional, and it should be returned to the states, so you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that," Romney said.
Perry used the exchange to draw attention to Romney's healthcare plan in Massachusetts, which included a mandate and which Obama's federal plan was based on.
"As a matter of fact [in your] hard-copy book, you said it was exactly what the American people needed to have … then in your, then in your paperback book, you took that line out," he said.
Romney accused Perry of misstating his views.
"I said no such thing. … It is a state plan for a state, it is not a national plan. It is fine for you to retreat from your own words in your own book but please don't make me retreat from the words that I wrote in my book. I stand by what I wrote and I believe in what I did," he said.
The debate, which was sponsored by Fox News and Google, was the third meeting between the candidates in 15 days. It was the second in 10 days in Florida, a state that could be crucial in deciding who from the GOP will take on Obama.
Nine candidates participated, including former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the first time he was allowed into a debate since May. The libertarian-leaning Johnson has been a nonentity in the race and was a minimal presence Thursday night.
The debate included questions not only from moderators, but also from people who submitted them online, including a gay soldier serving in Iraq who was booed when he asked whether the candidates would reinstate the newly repealed "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gay service members from serving openly.
The meeting took place as Perry has increasingly become viewed as the front-runner in the contest, but was facing increasing attacks on his record, including his support for in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and his opposition to a border fence. Perry stood by his positions.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said. "We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum castigated Perry.
"I would say that he is soft on illegal immigration," Santorum said. "I think the fact that he doesn't want to build a fence — he gave in a speech in 2001 where he talked about binational health insurance between Mexico and Texas. I mean, I don't even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance."
Santorum also took former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to task for his calls for bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that America needs to be committed to winning the wars it has invested in.
Huntsman, whose standing in the polls has been low but received a bump Wednesday when a New Hampshire survey found him at double digits there, said such nations as Afghanistan must be responsible for securing their futures.
"All that I want right now at this point in history is for America to save America," he said.
The debate was also key for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who surged after she entered the race in June, but has plummeted since Perry joined in August. She has had strong debate performances in the past, but struggled to get attention Thursday, at one point interrupting the moderators so she could answer a question asked of another candidate.