Fireworks between front-runners Perry and Romney erupt early in debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) began sparring over their respective jobs records less than 10 minutes into Wednesday's Republican presidential debate. 

The highly-anticipated fight between Romney and Perry, the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, largely lived up to expectations, with extended spats between the pair throughout the debate.

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But none of the exchanges were more pointed than the back-and-forth between Romney and Perry at the top of the debate over each other's record on jobs.

Each candidate was allowed the first two questions at the NBC News/Politico debate, hosted at the Reagan presidential library, and each answered their questions amicably. But that quickly gave ground to open squabbling once Perry and Romney were given a chance to engage each other.

"While he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that," Perry said of Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts. "As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts."

Republican and Democratic critics alike point to the Bay State's ranking as 47th-best of 50 states in job creation during Romney's time in office.

Romney responded by saying that he inherited a situation as governor that involved a turnaround. Romney said he would have been grateful to have the advantages — a wealth of natural resources, a friendly state legislature, and so on — that Perry has had as governor.

"Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things," Romney said. "If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."

Perry responded: "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt."

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

The early fireworks seemed inevitable heading into the highly-anticipated debate, the first of three in September, in the crucial post-Labor Day period of the campaign.

Perry's taken the lead in most national polls since having launched his campaign in August, dethroning Romney as the campaign's initial frontrunner, and setting up an expectation that Romney would go on the attack during the forum, Perry's first since becoming a candidate.

The fight extended throughout the debate, starting with the central issue of jobs, but also extending to President Obama's healthcare law (and the similar Massachusetts-level law Romney had authorized as governor), and Perry's insistence that Social Security resembles a "Ponzi scheme."

"It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country," Perry interjected during a question about the Massachusetts healthcare law.

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Romney largely shrugged off the criticism by noting that he "understand[s] healthcare pretty darn well," and instead saw his opportunity to pounce later, when Perry doubled down on remarks in his book calling Social Security a "monstrosity," and likening it to a Ponzi scheme.

"The issue in the book 'Fed Up,' governor, is you say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure," Romney said. "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security … I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure, and under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it's a failure."

In between the heavyweight matchup, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who's struggled in recent weeks to keep her name in the top tier of candidates, sometimes fell to the background.

Bachmann reiterated her promise to repeal Obama's healthcare law, a centerpiece of her campaign, and said that Romney and Perry's promises to sign executive orders upon taking office to dismantle the law were inadequate.

"With all due respect to the governors, issuing an executive order will not overturn this massive law," she said.

Bachmann also questioned the wisdom of Perry's decision in 2007 to sign a state executive order mandating young women in the state be vaccinated for the Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV). Bachmann said she would "certainly oppose" such an order.

Perry wasn't without his stumbles in his first national debate appearance, either. When pressed on the science between climate change, his answer seemed less rehearsed, and struggled to name a scientist he agreed with beyond offering: "Galileo got outvoted for a spell."

The debate featured several undercard match-ups that kept the California forum lively.

— Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Perry mixed it up at the end of the first segment. Paul's trained his sight on Perry recently, releasing an ad promoting Perry's affiliation as a Democrat early in his career. Paul attacked his fellow Texan by noting the letter Perry had written to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton praising her early 1990s healthcare reform effort.

Perry responded by explaining that the letter had been written before it became clear the Clinton plan would become a "monstrosity," and responded by asking Paul why he had resigned the GOP in the 1980s — referring to Paul's decision to seek the presidency as the Libertarian Party's nominee in 1988.

— Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) took aim at virtually all the candidates onstage, particularly frontrunners Romney and Perry. 

Huntsman boasted of Utah's gaudy jobs numbers during his time as governor, positioning himself as the candidate onstage with the best record on jobs. The former ambassador to China came out swinging on other issues, too, distancing himself from some of the campaign's more conservative leaders.

Of Romney's proposals to call on Chinese currency manipulation: "I have to say, Mitt, now is not the time, during a recession, to enter a trade war."

Huntsman also said that Bachmann's boast that her policies would reduce the price of gas to beneath $2/gallon was unrealistic.

— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) won his biggest applause line of the night by attacking the media, echoing jabs toward the press he'd made during last month's debate in Iowa.

"I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other," he said in response to a question.

— Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and pizza magnate Herman Cain struggled to stand out during most of the debate.

Santorum took a shot at Perry's HPV vaccination order and Romney's healthcare law, but neither punch seemed to land. Cain stayed focused on his "9-9-9" economic plan, to which he made frequent mention throughout the night.

This story was originally posted at 8:22 p.m. and last updated at 9:50 p.m.