Updated 9:02 p.m.
The sparks flew early at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate, with onetime frontrunner Mitt Romney and the man who has overtaken him in the polls, Texas governor Rick Perry, trading barbs over their respective records on job creation.
Romney was asked about the fact that Massachusetts was ranked 47th in job creation during his time in office. After making the case that he had improved a bad situation, Romney took a subtle shot at Perry, who has been in politics since 1984, saying, "Look, if I had spent my whole life in government, I wouldn't be running for president right now. My experience, having started enterprises, having helped other enterprises grow and thrive, is what gives me the experience to put together a plan to help restructure the basis of America's economic foundation so we can create jobs again, good jobs, and compete with anyone in the world."
Pressed on his reference to spending a "whole life in government," Romney, who touts his experience in the private sector, added: "It's a fine profession, and if someone were looking to say how can we restructure government, and which agency should report to which other agency, well, maybe that's the best background. If you're thinking about what it takes to reshape and update America's economy, and to allow us to compete with China and other nations around the world, understanding how the economy works fundamentally is a credential I think is critical."
Perry countered by saying that while Romney had a good record creating jobs "all around the world" in the private sector, "when he moved that experience to government, he had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country."
"So the fact is, while he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that," the Texas governor continued. "As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts."
That prompted Romney to interject as moderators tried to move on, saying, "listen, wait a second."
"States are different," he said. "Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."
Then Perry unveiled a line he seemed to have prepared in advance, pointing to a former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate who most Republicans view critically: "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt."
Romney shot right back: "Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor."
"That's not correct," Perry responded.
"Yes, that is correct," said Romney.
Quipped moderator Brian Williams: "Nice to see everybody came prepared for tonight's conversation."
After the exchange, a clearly prepared Romney campaign emailed reporters a message headlined "PERRY'S RECORD ON JOBS: A CLOSER LOOK."
"During Perry's time in office - through July of 2011 - nonfarm payrolls have grown at an annualized rate of 1%, well below the rate of former Govs. George W. Bush (3.2%) and Ann Richards (2.6%)," it read in part. The Romney campaign's emails to reporters featured a banner with pictures of Perry against a black background and the words "CAREER POLITICIAN" written in scratchy red script.
Perry's campaign later countered with an email to reporters focused on a different metric, claiming that while under Perry, "Texas has created jobs 12% faster than the U.S.," under Mr. Bush, "Texas created jobs 6% faster than the U.S."