ORLANDO, Fla. -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry fended off repeated attacks on issues including immigration and Social Security Thursday night as the Republican presidential candidates met in a two-hour debate.
The early front-runner in polling on the race defended his support for providing in-state tuition rates to children brought to the United States by illegal immigrants.
To those who oppose in-state tuition to aliens studying at the states schools, he said, "I don't think you have a heart," adding that to block the policy would result in alien immigrant children ending up as a burden on society.
"This was a state issue. Texans voted on it; and I still support it greatly," Mr. Perry said.
Former Massachusetts Gov, Mitt Romney, who vetoed a similar measure in his state, attacked his rival's view.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum underscored the criticism, saying that Mr. Perry was making a false distinction in saying that such students should be allowed to be educated in state schools. The question he said, was not whether they should be allowed to attend state schools but whether their tuition should be subsidized at in-state rates.
"I would say he is soft on immigration," Mr. Santorum said.
The clash came late in the first hour of the debate. Mr. Perry get a chance to try to turn a critical spotlight on Mr. Romney late in the debate, as he offered a somewhat rambling recitation of Mr. Romney's shifts in position on issues ranging from abortion to health care, to gun rights.
On a day when the stock market changes in position, the administration's economic policies were once again sharply criticized.
"My next-door-neighbor's dog has created more shovel ready jobs than this president,'' said Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who was a new face on the GOP debate stage.
While sharp exchanges, particularly between the perceived front-runners, Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, had been anticipated, the opening segment of the encounter was fairly placid, marked more by general accord among the candidates, particularly in their opposition to administration education policies and near unanimity on the need to abolish the Department of Education.
Among the evenings clearest disagreements was a clash between Mr. Santorum and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman over U.S. military intervention. Mr. Huntsman argued that it was time to bring troops home from Afghanistan.
Mr. Santorum insisted that the U.S. principles demanded that the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq should be pursued regardless of politics.
Mr. Perry, who surged to the front of GOP polls after his late entry in the race, described himself as the pi??ata in two previous debates. Ten days ago, Rep. Michele Bachman put the Texas governor on the defensive over his past support of vaccinations for young women against a virus than can cause cervical cancer. She renewed the criticism last night, charging further that his decision had been influenced by lobbying and campaign contributions.
But she sidestepped a question on whether she had erred in repeating an unfounded claim that the vaccine could be responsible for mental retardation in some recipients.
Mr. Romney made clear in the days before the latest GOP encounter that he would press Mr. Perry on his skeptical approach to Social Security, an issue with particular resonance in a state with a disproportionate share of elderly and retired residents. Mr. Perry denied the suggestion that he might turn the program completely over to the states, suggesting that that was just one limited option that was already in place for some state employees.
Citing the earlier statements, Mr. Romney said, "There's a Rick Perry out there that says ... the federal government should be out of the pension business,'' Mr. Romney said. "You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
Citing Mr. Romney's campaign book, Mr. Perry suggested he had made similarly inconsistent statements on health care.
In answer to one question, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that all unemployment compensation should be dependent on enrollment in job training programs. He said he would recapture and expand on the policy issues of his earlier days in politics by issuing an updated version of the Contract With America, the campaign manifesto that preceded the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.
Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman, said he would revive the economy with his nine-nine-nine proposal -- a plan to replace the current tax system with a 9 percent income, tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent sales tax.
The candidates took the stage as a new poll confirmed the perception that Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney hold the strongest positions here at this still early stage of the race.
When the Florida Republicans were asked to choose among a field that included former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mr. Perry led Mr. Romney, 28 percent to 22 percent. Without Ms. Palin on the candidate list, the Texan did better still, leading Mr. Romney, 31 percent to 22 percent. But the survey still reinforced one of the key arguments of the Romney camp -- that he is the stronger general election candidate. Among all Floria voters, Mr. Romney led President Obama, 47 percent to 40 percent, while M.r Perry trailed the Democratic incumbent, 44 percent to 42 percent.
None of the other GOP contenders broke out of single digits in the Quinnipiac University poll. Mr. Gingrich and Georgia businessman Herman Cain tied at 8 percent; Ms. Bachmann had 7 percent; Mr. Paul, 6 percent; and Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huntsman had 2 percent.
Hours before their debate last night in Orlando, several of the candidates made warm-up appearances at a rally sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition in another section of the city's sprawling convention complex.
In remarks that she repeated in her closing statement, Ms. Bachmann urged the group not to settle for an "anyone but Obama" choice as their standard bearer next year
She said that this would be an election "where conservatives will not have to settle ... We don't have to sit on the back of the bus in this election," urging the crowd to insist on "a true social conservative."
The two-hour debate was the prelude to a weekend of GOP activism that was to culminate in a straw poll Saturday. The procedures for that contest are arguably more fair and rational than its Iowa predecessor but, despite the best efforts of the Florida Republican Party, it has not assumed the same high profile on the GOP campaign trail. The debate audience at the Orlando Convention Center included 3,500 Republican delegates chosen from throughout the state. They will be the voters in the Saturday straw poll. At the Ames, Iowa event last month, voting was open to any Iowan who bought a ticket.
Though their names will remain on the Saturday ballot, Mr. Romney, Ms Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have all said that they will not actively compete in the event.
The state's new governor, Rick Scott, nonetheless predicted that the winner of the straw poll would goon to win the nomination that will be formally awarded next year in a convention just about an hour down Interstate 4, in Tampa.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.