JEFFREY BROWN: The economy was also a big topic in last night's Republican debate. There were eight candidates on stage at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., but most attention was focused on the two leading contenders for the nomination.
Ray Suarez has our recap.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas presidential candidate: As a matter of fact, we created more jobs...
RAY SUAREZ: From the outset, the new Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and his top rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, clashed sharply over who had the best record of job creation.
Perry slammed Romney's record during his time as governor of Massachusetts.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Gov. Romney left the private sector, and he did a great job of creating jobs in the private sector all around the world. But the fact is, when he moved that experience to government, he had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: States are different. Texas is a great state. 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 Gov. Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, why, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.
MITT ROMNEY: Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.
GOV. RICK PERRY: That's not correct.
RAY SUAREZ: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is far down in the polls, but he tried to inject himself into the jobs debate by pointing to his own record.
JON HUNTSMAN, (R) presidential candidate: We're going to find solutions, and I have an offer for the two great governors over here.
And I hate to rain on the parade of the great Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the number-one job creator in this country during my years of service. That was 5.9 percent when you were creating jobs at 4.9 percent.
And to my good friend Mitt, 47th just ain't going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first. We've got to remember that, to beat President Obama, we have to have somebody who's been in the private sector, understands the fragility of the free market system, has been a successful governor as it relates to job creation, and knows something about this world.
I have lived overseas four times, I have been an ambassador to my country three times, I think I understand that.
RAY SUAREZ: But the focus remained on Perry and Romney, who also slugged it out over Social Security.
Debate co-moderator John Harris of Politico wanted to know about a passage in Perry's book "Fed Up," which said the program was ill-conceived from the outset.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Well, I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what's been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time. And rather than spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doing back in the '30s and the '40s, is a nice intellectual conversation, but the fact is we have got to be focused on how we're going to change this program.
And it is a monstrous lie, 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 with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right.
MITT ROMNEY: Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security.
We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need, and our seniors have the need of Social Security. I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure. We save Social Security.
And under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it's a failure.
RAY SUAREZ: Perry has skyrocketed to the head of the pack less than a month after joining the race. And he drew fire from others on the stage as well.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: But I am offended.
RAY SUAREZ: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took issue with an executive order issued by Perry in 2007. It required that schoolgirls be vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
RICK SANTORUM: Gov. Perry's out there and -- and claiming about states' rights and states' rights. How about parental rights being more important than state's rights? How about having, instead of an opt-out, an opt-in?
RAY SUAREZ: The Texas governor in turn appeared to take the criticism in stride.
GOV. RICK PERRY: I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party, so...
JOHN HARRIS: Welcome.
RAY SUAREZ: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the candidates should be taking their shots at President Obama, not each other.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: I for one and I hope all of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated, and all of us are committed as a team. Whoever the nominee, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RAY SUAREZ: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann endorsed that sentiment, but she appealed anew for voters' attention, after Perry's surge eclipsed her win in last month's Iowa straw poll.
Bachmann argued that her leadership on pushing for repeal of the president's health care law has been unmatched.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn. presidential candidate: And with all due respect to the governors, issuing an executive order will not overturn this massive law. This will take a very strong, bold leader in the presidency who will lead that effort. No -- none of us should ever have ourselves think that the repeal bill will just come to our desk. It will take a very strong leader.
RAY SUAREZ: Texas Congressman Ron Paul also had his moment in the spotlight defending his limited-government view, especially when it comes to disaster funding.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, "NBC Nightly News": The question is, federal aid, something like FEMA, if you object to what its become, how it's run, your position is to -- is to remove it, take it away, abolish it. What happens in its absence?
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas presidential candidate: Well, what happened before 1979? We didn't have FEMA. And that -- FEMA just conditioned people to build where they shouldn't be building. We lose the market effect of that.
But, yes, my position is, we should have never had it. There's a much better way of doing it. I mean, this whole idea that the federal government can deal with weather and anything in the world, just go to the federal government, FEMA's broke. They're $20 billion in debt.
RAY SUAREZ: And from back in the pack, former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain touted his business background and his own jobs plan.
HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: Let's cut to the chase. This is what business people do and politicians don't do. Here's how I would fix this economy. First, eliminate the current tax code. It is a drain on entrepreneurs. It is the biggest barrier that's holding this economy back, and what I would do is to propose a bold plan, which I have already released.
I call it my 9-9-9 economic growth plan. Throw out the current tax code, a 9 percent tax on corporate income, a 9 percent tax on personal income, and a 9 percent national sales tax. If 10 percent is good enough for God, 9 percent ought to be good enough for the federal government.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RAY SUAREZ: The Republican contenders are scheduled to meet for two more debates this month, the first coming next Monday in Florida.