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Texas governor trades blows in US debate debut

09 september 2011, 11:31
Texas governor and Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry traded blows with his main rival on Wednesday in a closely-watched debate debut, AFP reports.

Perry, who only joined the race last month, touted his job-creating record as he tussled with former front-runner Mitt Romney on how to kick-start the economy and kick President Barack Obama out of the White House next year.

But Perry's first debate also raised questions about some of his more hardline views, including his firm skepticism about climate change and his view that Social Security is nothing but a "Ponzi scheme."

Within minutes of the debate starting in the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California Perry and Romney came to blows over the central issue of jobs, trading jabs about their records as state governors.

"What Americans are looking for is someone who can get this country working again," said Perry, taking aim at Romney's claim to have created tens of thousands of jobs in businesses he backed as an investment fund manager.

Former Massachusetts governor Romney shot back, lampooning Perry's claim to have created more jobs in three months than Romney had in four years by pointing out Texas's rare assets, including vast oil and gas reserves.

Perry's claiming responsibility for these was a bit "like Al Gore claiming to have invented the internet," Romney said, drawing laughter by evoking a famous line by the former Democratic vice president.

Jobs and the struggling US economy were always going to feature high on the agenda of the debate, ahead of a keynote speech by President Obama on Thursday aimed at tackling zero US job growth and reviving his own political fortunes.

Perry only joined the Republican field for the White House in mid-August, energizing a lackluster race and leapfrogging into the lead ahead of Romney.

Two new polls this week put Perry in a commanding lead: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave him 38 percent against 23 percent for Romney, while a Washington Post/ABC News poll put them at 27 percent and 22 percent.

As well as the struggling economy -- seen as a key area of vulnerability for Obama -- the debate touched on homeland security, immigration, foreign policy, welfare reform and climate change.

Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite whose poll surge was stemmed by Perry's entry into the race, drew applause but some skepticism from her colleagues for saying she would reduce gas prices to two dollars a gallon.

On Social Security, Perry was blunt, saying the current system simply would not be able to pay for the retirement of younger generations.

"It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody that's for the status quo... is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids," he said.

And on climate change, Perry reiterated his view that scientists have not proven a link to human activity.

Some analysts said the more extreme rhetoric -- including the Social Security comments and his calling the president a liar -- could prove problematic in the longer term if Perry wins the Republican nomination.

"All of these things may not necessarily have a negative reaction in a Republican primary but all that is very problematic in the context of a general election when you're trying to win in swing states," Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said.

Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute agreed.

"Romney obviously is smoother, he's been doing these longer," he told AFP, noting Perry's "halting style."

In addition, "history says that running against Social Security is often very hazardous to a politician's health... One would assume that the Democrats will be happy to bring it up should Mr. Perry become the nominee."

"On the other hand, he didn't make any obvious mistakes," he added.

The Republican debate is the first of three over the next two weeks. Cable news channel CNN is to host a "Tea Party Republican Debate" on September 12, followed by a Fox News-organized event on September 22, both in Florida.

By Robyn Beck

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