WASHINGTON — The Republicans seeking the presidency have spent months pitching glossy versions of themselves to voters, but they now find their rivals microscopically examining their records and past statements in a game of political one-upmanship.
Ahead of Thursday afternoon's candidate forum and an evening debate in swing-state Florida, their advisers telegraphed the criticism each campaign was likely to use. As most of the candidates plan a two-day trip to the hard-fought swing state, they are ramping up their rhetoric against each other.
For instance: Texas added jobs during the economic recession under Gov. Rick Perry's leadership. But unemployment went up last month and is at the highest level since 1987, rival Mitt Romney noted.
Romney filled in Massachusetts' $3 billion budget hole without raising taxes as governor. Yet the state trailed 46 others in job creation, Perry shot back.
Don't expect subtlety or free passes on details.
"There are a lot of questions I'd like to have answered," Romney said of Perry during a Wednesday event in Miami.
Perry's campaign didn't address Romney's questions. Instead, chief spokesman Ray Sullivan swiped at a rival who "seems to forget he's a Republican."
"Being 47th in job creation and killing 18,000 jobs with RomneyCare is not a record to brag about," Sullivan said, hitting Romney on a health overhaul conservatives loathe. "Under Gov. Perry, Texas added more private-sector jobs in the past two months than Massachusetts did in four years under Mitt Romney."
With Romney and Perry elbowing each other for front-runner status — and tea party darling Michele Bachmann trying to wedge herself into the top tier — the presidential contenders scheduled a forum on their faith and a head-to-head debate for Thursday. They will also make appearances at a conservative conference on Friday and some will visit a nonbinding test vote of the party faithful on Saturday.
A poll released early Thursday indicates Florida Republicans slightly prefer Perry over Romney in their party's battle to find a nominee to face President Barack Obama next year.
Perry was favored by 28 percent of the 374 registered Republican voters, compared with 22 percent who want Romney as their nominee. The random telephone survey, conducted Sept. 14-19 by Quinnipiac University, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.
With five months remaining until the first nominating contests, time is running short for some of the candidates trying to break free of the pack. Their camps descended on senior citizen-rich Florida this week, ready with lines sharpened for fellow Republicans more than for their once-favorite target, Obama.
"I've forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters in Washington, trying to rap his rival's foreign policy speech.
An independent pro-Bachmann group was ready to start airing ads in Iowa aimed at Perry. "The question is about Rick Perry's character," the Keep Conservatives United ad states in the 30-second commercial to air on Fox News Channel in Cedar Rapids.
The ad follows Bachmann's criticism of Perry's record in Texas and echoes conservatives' criticism of vaccines he mandated.
And Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite of the party's libertarian wing, renewed his criticism of Perry as a typical politician.
"He knows what people are thinking about, that's how politicians operate," Paul told reporters Wednesday before heading to Florida.
Also set to join that debate: Georgia businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
But the key rivalry to watch is between Perry and Romney, a pair of political front-runners who already have let criticism fly. A Romney spokeswoman called Perry "a career politician" a day ahead of the debate. A Perry aide shot back that Romney has been campaigning full-time for nearly five years.
Romney has spent years building an organization and has aggressively worked to raise money. Perry, who entered the campaign just last month, quickly jumped to the lead in national polls as Republicans looked for an alternative to Romney.
During their last debate, the two directly confronted each other on their records. The questions have become more pointed in the days since.