In debate, Romney and Perry try to make 2012 a two-Republican race

Eight Republican presidential candidates were on stage for a debate tonight at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., but it was a showdown driven largely by clashes between the two leading candidates in the race: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Within the first 10 minutes of the debate, the two men took aim at one another. Perry, in his first debate appearance since joining the race three weeks ago, trashed Romney's record on job creation and health care reform in Massachusetts.

Romney, in turn, slammed Perry as a career politician who has benefitted from a friendlier environment in Texas than he did in Massachusetts, including a wealth of natural resources and a cooperative state legislature.

"Gov. Perry doesn't believe that he created those things," Romney declared. "If he did, it would be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet."

"Michael Dukakis created created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry quickly replied.

Romney shot back: "Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor."

"That's not correct," Perry said.

"Yes, that is correct," Romney said.

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The exchange set the tone for much of the evening, in which Perry and Romney directly challenged one another, largely ignoring rivals who attempted to interject themselves into the debate.

In a sign of how quickly the race has changed within the past month, Michele Bachmann, who was the primary focus of last month's televised debate in Iowa, did not receive a question until nearly 20 minutes into the night's proceedings.

Perry entered Wednesday night's forum amid speculation that his debate skills wouldn't be as polished as his rivals. But that low bar appeared to have benefited Perry, who seemed at ease on stage as he targeted Romney and, in one odd instance, Ron Paul—whom he accused of not fully supporting Ronald Reagan.

Perry offered a full-throated defense of some of his more provocative statements on the campaign trail, including his statement that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme"—a declaration that has drawn criticism from his rivals as well as key Republicans like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

But the Texas govenor repeated his position that it's a "monstrous lie" for any candidate to say Social Security will be around for younger people. Acknowledging that Republicans have regarded the statement as controversial, Perry insisted it was perhaps it was time to have straight talk from a candidate.

"Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," he insisted.

In response, Romney used the moment to cast himself as more electable.

"Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney insisted. "I will be sure that we keep the program and make it financially secure."

Jon Huntsman, who has struggled to gain momentum in the race, used a more forceful tone in the debate, repeatedly taking aim at both Romney and Perry. The former Utah governor, who left his post as President Obama's ambassador to China last spring, insisted his record on jobs was better than either Romney's or Perry's.

Newt Gingrich, as he did last month, attacked the moderators of debate, sponsored by NBC News and Politico, accusing them of trying to turn Republicans against one another to benefit President Obama.

"Whoever the nominee is, we're all for defeating Barack Obama," Gingrich said, as the audience cheered.

Still, even Gingrich couldn't resist taking a shot at Perry. Asked about the glowing introduction he wrote for Perry's recent book, "Fed Up!" and whether that's a sign he supports most of Perry's positions, Gingrich said it did not.

"No, it means if he wanted to write another book, I would help with the foreword," Gingrich said.

Perry joked at one point about the attacks from his rivals.

"I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party," he said.