SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Front-runner Rick Perry jumped into his first debate with fellow candidates for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday, boasting of his record creating jobs but facing questions about whether his stands on such issues as Social security and climate science might make him unelectable.
From the opening seconds, Perry and his impact on the campaign dominated the debate as he and his rivals elbowed one another for position heading into a frantic fall.
Perry quickly showed he will not sit on his lead in polls, ripping into chief rival Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
He also repeated a controversial statement that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme," a phrase criticized as politically polarizing by some other Republicans including former Vice President Dick Cheney. And he stood by his statements that science has not proved conclusively that human activity is causing climate change.
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The spirited exchanges underscored the rising stakes as the campaign enters the fall and a rush of three debates in three weeks, all while the candidates scramble to raise money before the third quarter ends on Sept. 30.
It was Perry's first appearance in a debate since he jumped into the race in August and surged ahead of Romney in polls to seize the lead in the contest. The showdown at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, co-hosted by MSNBC and Politico, also came a day before Obama rolls out his new jobs agenda in an address to Congress.
Perry, whose boast of job growth in Texas has helped fuel his rapid rise in the campaign, said that makes him a unique champion against Obama.
"Who on this stage can get America working?" Perry said. "What Americans are looking for is someone who can get this country working again. ... We created 1 million jobs in the state of Texas. At the same time, America lost 2.5 million."
He brushed aside a question about the quality of those jobs, saying "95 percent of all the jobs that we've created have been above minimum wage."
Romney defended his own record when he served as governor. When the debate moderator noted that Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during his term, Romney said he inherited a state that was losing jobs and managed to leave it with a 4.7 percent jobless rate.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "we created more jobs in Massachusetts than this president has created in the entire country."
He chafed at any comparison between Massachusetts and Texas.
"States are different," he said. "Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."
Romney also stressed his tenure in the private sector, saying his work as an investment banker helped create tens of thousands of jobs and that he, better than career politicians such as Perry, knows how the economy works.
"That experience, succeeding, failing, competing around the world, is what gives me the capacity to help get this economy going again," Romney said.
Others jumped in as well.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who bragged that Utah led the nation in job creation when he was governor, also criticized Romney's record. "Forty-seventh just isn't going to cut it, my friend," he said.
Huntsman also chided Romney for saying in his new jobs agenda that he'd label China as a manipulator of its currency and explore possible tariffs on Chinese goods.
"Now is not the time in a recession to start a trade war," said Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China.
Rivals took aim at Perry for views they said would make it difficult to attract independent votes in a general election against Obama.
On Social Security, he stood by his description of it as a scheme, while insisting the fight over its legality isn't worth fighting now.
"Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney said.
On climate change, Perry repeated his view that "the science is not settled on this."
Huntsman called that position political poison, given the overwhelming scientific consensus. "For the Republican Party to win, we can't run away from science," he said.
Also participating in the debate were Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, business executive Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
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