Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, from left, listen to Jon Huntsman Jr. during the Fox News/Google debate in Orlando, Fla. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images / September 23, 2011)

By Paul West and Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2011, 10:04 p.m.

Reporting from Orlando, Fla., and San Francisco— After taking heat from the rest of the GOP presidential field in the last two debates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to take the offensive against his main rival Thursday night by questioning Mitt Romney’s views on education and accusing him of misrepresenting Perry’s stance on Social Security.

Reviving a charge that has dogged Romney since his 2008 presidential campaign, Perry said the former Massachusetts governor had switched positions on issues of importance to Republican voters — and thus, he implied, would be an undependable nominee.

“We’ll wait until tomorrow and — and — and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight,” Perry said, after stumbling through a litany of positions he said Romney had taken on different sides of the issues of gun rights, abortion and healthcare.

Romney looked on blank-faced. “Nice try,” he responded. He then renewed his charge that Perry had backed away from the Social Security stance outlined in his 2010 book.

“Not an inch, sir,” Perry replied.

Romney suggested it was Perry who should worry about flip-flopping charges: “There’s a Rick Perry out there that’s saying that … the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional. So you’d better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”

Romney insisted he was unshakable.

“One reason to elect me is that I know what I stand for; I’ve written it down,” he said of his own campaign book, published two years ago. “Words have meaning, and I have the experience to get this country going again.”

Throughout the two-hour debate, Perry stiffened his resistance to criticism of his record on immigration and government mandates, refusing to back away from his support for tuition assistance for children of illegal immigrants and his order to require HPV vaccinations for young girls.

“I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said of his critics. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew applause from the audience of 5,000 GOP activists at the Orange County Convention Center when he said that the problem with the Texas program, which has provided in-state tuition to thousands of children of illegal immigrants, is that it amounts to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of illegal immigration.

As for his mandate that sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease, Perry riffed on an old country-music line. “I don’t know what part of ‘opt-out’ most parents don’t get,” he said. (The order was blocked by the Texas Legislature.)

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that in issuing the mandate, Perry had “made a decision where he gave parental rights to a big drug company.”

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