Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
The GOP presidential contest has quickly narrowed to a two-man race.
As Rick Perry and Mitt Romney jockey over their ability to defeat President Barack Obama, there are deepening fault lines between the two on Social Security, immigration, jobs and more that could shape the contest.
Their stylistic differences are as stark as their disagreements on substance. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, also is a former venture capitalist who is at his best when he's talking about how to help businesses help the economy grow. Perry, the Texas governor, is a fiery, red-meat conservative who has already shown he loves to go on the attack — and isn't afraid to go after his chief GOP rival.
Those contrasts have driven Romney's campaign to fundamentally change a strategy that was previously aimed squarely at Obama. Until Perry jumped into the race and almost immediately displaced Romney as the front-runner, the former Massachusetts governor focused his public appearances and messaging on the president.
Now, instead of running a general election campaign in primary season, Romney will spend the early months trying to convince Republicans that Perry can't beat Obama in November.
It will start with Social Security, an issue Romney's campaign has decided is Perry's biggest liability. Aides privately say they plan to make it a singular focus in the coming weeks.
"You say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure. You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it," Romney said in Wednesday night's debate, after he and Perry had already traded jabs over their jobs records earlier in the debate.
The Romney campaign has followed that with a steady stream of press releases, background material and on-the-record quotes assailing Perry as a career politician who is unelectable.
"If (Perry) were to win the nomination, the most interesting thing that it would prove is that God is a Democrat," said Stuart Stevens, a top Romney strategist.
Romney has also started to take on Perry's immigration record. Advisers say that could be the next front in the fight, largely because it could hurt Perry with the conservative base he relies on. As governor of a border state with problems related to illegal immigration, Perry has said a physical border fence isn't necessary. Texas universities also allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.
Romney used a recent immigration address to emphasize his support for a fence on the southern border — and to highlight his veto of an in-state tuition bill in Massachusetts
But putting so much focus on such issues carries risks: They're a distraction from the central, disciplined jobs-and-economy message that Romney has been pushing steadily for months. The economy is the issue most likely to drive voters in 2012.
Perry has already made clear that he will run primarily on his jobs record — Texas gained more than 1 million jobs during his tenure as governor. And he has taken almost every opportunity to go after Romney on the issue.
"Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry jabbed on the debate stage. And after Romney unveiled a 160-page economic recovery plan earlier this week, Perry's campaign immediately put out a statement slamming it.
Speaking of his GOP opponents, Perry told Republicans in California on Thursday, "We got our differences and we'll talk about them and what have you and hopefully in a very respectful way." Most important, he said, "is we need to have a nominee that doesn't blur the lines between themselves and the current resident of the White House."
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