WASHINGTON (AP) — A Texas-size rivalry boiled over in the Republican presidential contest Wednesday, with Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry strongly criticizing each other during a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a memorial to the conservative who counseled fellow Republicans not to speak ill about one another.
Neither Texan heeded that advice.
Paul said at the Simi Valley, Calif., event that Perry is "less conservative than meets the eye." Perry countered that Paul left the GOP a turncoat against Reagan's Republican Party.
It was the most direct confrontation between the pair. In recent weeks, Paul called Perry "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader" for once working in support of the Democrat. Perry's team, in turn, released Paul's 1987 resignation from the GOP.
The back-and-forth between two Texans, who never have been particularly close, was an escalation several weeks in the making.
Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has a strong legion of die-hard supporters and a big bank account, came within 152 votes of winning an important test vote in Iowa on the same day that Perry, who leads in several national and state polls, entered the race to great fanfare among the party's conservative base.
As both candidates have seen their standing in the GOP field rise, they have sharpened their criticism of each other.
"He wrote a really fancy letter about Hillarycare so we probably ought to ask him about that," Paul said, referencing a 1993 letter Perry wrote in support of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system.
In that letter, Perry, then the state's agriculture commissioner, wrote: "I think your efforts in trying to reform the nation's health care system are most commendable."
On stage for his first presidential debate, Perry said he was worried about health care services for rural farmers.
"I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan that said, `I'm going to quit the party,"' Perry told Paul..
In that letter, Paul wrote: "I want to totally disassociate myself from the policies that have given us unprecedented deficits, massive monetary inflation, indiscriminate military spending, an irrational and unconstitutional foreign policy, zooming foreign aid, the exaltation of international banking, and the attack on our personal liberties and privacy."
Last week, Paul likened Perry to a "candidate of the week" and predicted that Perry's poll numbers would fall quickly once voters got to know him better. He told The Associated Press, "Texas has had a lot of changes in these last eight years, not exactly positive either."
This week, Paul rolled out a TV ad suggesting that Perry wants to unravel the Reagan legacy. The ad highlighted Paul's own endorsement of Reagan's unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 1976 and Perry's work on Democrat Al Gore's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988.
The ad said: "Rick Perry helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution, fighting to elect Al Gore president of the United States. Now, America must decide who to trust: Al Gore's Texas cheerleader or the one who stood with Reagan."
Perry was a Democrat serving in the state legislature at the time and had no significant leadership role in Gore's third-place finish in Texas. Perry switched parties in 1989 and successfully ran for state agriculture commissioner as a Republican.
"We don't think the fact that you used to be a Democrat is the big problem here," Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton said in an open letter to Perry on Wednesday. "The real problem is that, too often, you still act like one."
In 2008, Perry, who previously supported Texans Phil Gramm and George W. Bush for president, backed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over Paul in the GOP nomination fight.
Asked at the time about Paul, Perry dismissed his home state lawmaker.
"I didn't ever consider Ron Paul," he said. "You get to make choices in life. And I made a choice. Ron Paul is not mine for president. It's pretty simple for me."
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