Willis Glassgow, Associated Press
Texas Governor and Presidential hopeful Rick Perry, autographs a copy of his book for a supporter after a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at Horry-Georgetown Technical College on Monday Sept. 5, 2011 in Conway, S.C.
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Squaring off for the first time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were facing each other Wednesday night along with struggling contender Michele Bachmann and other presidential hopefuls at a GOP campaign debate.
With the national unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent, the candidates expected to spend much of the nearly two-hour debate sparring over the economy — and who is best equipped to fix it. Perry has been touting his jobs record in Texas, while Romney just unveiled his own detailed economic plan.
While taking on each other, the candidates were sure to agree that President Barack Obama is doing a poor job and must be defeated. The debate comes one day before Obama delivers a major address on creating jobs before a joint session of Congress.
Held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the debate is the first of three scheduled this month. The events are likely to help shape a GOP presidential field that has been morphing into a two-way race between Perry and Romney.
Perry, who cut short his campaign appearances earlier this week to deal with wildfires raging in Texas, flew to California for the debate even though the flames weren't extinguished. It was his first national debate appearance.
He was going up against Romney, who ran for president in 2008 and has honed his debate skills since then. Romney turned in strong performances in the three previous debates — all held before Perry entered the race and overtook Romney in national and early state polls.
The stakes also were high for the others on stage — particularly for Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman looking look to keep her name near the top of a pile that also includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Bachmann's standing rose quickly this summer, and she won a key test vote in Iowa on Aug. 13. But Perry's entrance into the race eclipsed her, and she's seen staff upheaval this week, losing her campaign manager and her deputy campaign manager.
Huntsman, for his part, was looking to prove he's still relevant — a goal made more difficult by a sinus infection that has affected his voice and that kept him from planned television appearances Wednesday. Huntsman aides said he still would debate.
Wednesday marked the third time the hilltop library — a shrine to all things Reagan — will provide the backdrop for a Republican presidential debate. Former first lady Nancy Reagan planned to welcome the candidates.