ORLANDO, Fla. — Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann said Thursday that social conservatives don't have to settle for a nominee who does not share their values, and rival Mitt Romney said the party should nominate someone from the private sector — double-team criticism of front-runner Rick Perry.
Romney and Bachmann opened a forum on faith and freedom ahead of Thursday night's televised GOP debate with sharp criticism of their chief rival. Other competitors were following at the event tailored to the religious voters who are a key part of the party's base of support.
Bachmann said 2012 is a time for the GOP to nominate someone "who is a true social conservative." She didn't mention her rivals by name, but she has criticized Perry's positions on illegal immigration and mandated vaccinations.
"Of any of election, this is the one where conservatives don't have to settle," she said.
For his part, Romney pitched himself as a proven businessman who detoured into politics for one term as Massachusetts' governor.
"'There are plenty of people who are running for president who are politicians. Nothing wrong with that. ... I think it helps to have someone who has had a job, to create jobs for the American people," said Romney, making his second presidential run.
The Perry campaign, with the Texas governor to speak near the end of the forum on the sidelines of a three-day GOP meeting, kept its eye on Romney.
"Romney flip-flops are legendary and are exactly why he isn't connecting with conservative voters," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "After years of pandering and policy evolution, Mr. Romney just can't be trusted on important economic and social issues."
The forums and debate come as the Republicans increase their criticism of each other. Romney and Perry have spent recent days trading jabs over Social Security, job creation and who is a better Republican.
It's the latest example of the campaigns microscopically examining each other's records and past statements in a game of political one-upmanship.
For instance: Texas added jobs during the economic recession under Gov. Perry's leadership. But unemployment went up last month and is at the highest level since 1987, Romney has 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.
A poll released early Thursday suggested 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, the GOP contenders came to senior citizen-rich Florida this week, ready with lines sharpened for fellow Republicans more than for their once-favorite target, Obama.
Santorum used the forum to urge religious conservatives to look at the Republican candidates' records and question their authenticity.Comment on this story
"Don't just look at what box they check, what pledge they take. Take a look at what bullets and arrows they've taken for the causes they believe in," he said. "We have a long list of presidential candidates ... who say one thing and then cower when the going gets tough."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a favorite of the party's libertarian wing, used his appearance to emphasize his anti-abortion position and his skepticism of the Federal Reserve.
"Listen for the truth and practice only the truth and we can, once again, become the most prosperous and most free country in the world," Paul said.
Also joining the Thursday night debate: Georgia businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.