WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential debate made two things clear: The 2012 contest is focused more than ever on jobs, and the GOP field is led by two men who can make plausible, though certainly imperfect, claims of experience in job creation.
President Barack Obama, already under pressure to present a compelling new job-expansion strategy in his nationwide address Thursday, will now feel even more urgency. The California forum Wednesday night covered several topics, but above all it helped Rick Perry and Mitt Romney showcase their credentials and proposals on the jobs front.
Unlike Obama, they don't have to offer detailed plans or confront a hostile Republican-led House. The president, whose popularity is sagging amid 9.1 percent unemployment, must try to craft a plan that can win bipartisan support even as his would-be challengers keep heaping scorn on his record.
The 105-minute GOP debate was Perry's debut on the national stage, and the Texas governor gave a solid performance that stressed his state's recent employment growth. Perry mixed red-meat morsels for conservative activists — saying Obama may be "an abject liar" about border security — with efforts to calm the rhetoric on a few issues such as climate change.
Meanwhile, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, displayed no panic despite polls that show Perry suddenly on top. He jabbed Perry here and there, but came to his defense on a controversial vaccination issue. As he has for months, Romney aimed most of his barbs at Obama, not his fellow Republicans.
The other six GOP candidates, especially Rep. Michele Bachmann, seemed to fade a bit, largely because they don't have records as job creators. The exception may have been former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who scored some points but languishes in the polls.
Romney stuck with a strategy of trying to appeal to conservatives where possible, but also keeping an eye on independent voters, who will be crucial in the general election. He hedged on whether he's a tea party member, and generally maintained an above-the-fray demeanor.
Perry took more risks, especially on Social Security. He repeatedly called its funding mechanism a "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie."
Romney suggested such rhetoric will invite Obama to paint Republicans as extremists. "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but who is committed to saving Social Security," he said.
In the coming days Perry is likely to be pressed for a fuller explanation. Workers and employers pay Social Security payroll taxes that fund benefits for current retirees. The taxes are not set aside and invested, as many taxpayers seem to think. The program is headed for trouble in future years unless revenues and projected benefits are brought into line, a painful truth that Perry says Americans must confront.
As vital as Social Security is, the dearth of U.S. jobs seems likely to dominate the 2012 elections. Perry didn't wait 15 seconds to tout his record.
"Over the last decade, we created 1 million jobs in the state of Texas," he said. "At the same time, America lost 2.5 million."
Romney defended his record as governor, saying it's misleading to note, without explanation, that Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during his time as governor. The state was in "a real free fall" when he took office, Romney said. "We were able to turn around the job losses," he said, lowering unemployment to 4.7 percent.
The two men traded quick punches that drew laughs from the audience.
"Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry said, alluding to a former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.
Romney shot back, "George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor."
Both men, of course, skated past the shakier details of their jobs records. Massachusetts' unemployment rate did fall under Romney, but not by a huge amount. Texas has added more than a million jobs during Perry's decade in office, but many of them pay poorly, and some Texans say the governor has been more of a bystander than engineer.
In fairness, there's only so much any governor can do to create jobs, and a president arguably has even fewer powers. Economists generally praised Obama's 2009 stimulus program. But it proved unpopular, and Republicans routinely denounce it, leaving him fewer options.
With GOP activists increasingly convinced that Obama might lose next year, congressional Republicans seem likely to keep opposing him on most major initiatives.
Obama is expected Thursday to call for extending a cut in Social Security payroll taxes, renewing extended aid to the unemployed and spending more on transportation projects.
The Wednesday GOP debate's focus on jobs made it hard at times for the non-governors to fully engage. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said a host of federal services, including disaster relief, have made Americans too dependent on the government.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and others criticized Perry's 2007 order requiring schoolgirls to be vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. The state legislature overturned the order, and Perry noted that families could opt out of the requirement.
Herman Cain criticized Romney's health care law that required Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance. He called the mandate unconstitutional.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused the debate moderators, from NBC News and Politico, of trying to get Republicans to quarrel with each other.
Huntsman, who has struggled to get traction, tried to turn the focus on jobs to his advantage. "As governor of Utah," he said, "we were the No. 1 job creator in this country."
Huntsman told Romney that finishing 47th in the nation "just ain't going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first."
Obama is unlikely to have as much fun with the topic Thursday night.