By John Whitesides
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Republican Rick Perry came under heavy fire on Social Security, jobs and his Texas record in a heated U.S. presidential debate on Monday as rivals tried to halt the front-runner's momentum.
The Texas governor, who has soared to the top of opinion polls in the Republican race, renewed his fight with challenger Mitt Romney over Social Security. They accused each other of frightening seniors about the popular retirement program.
Perry's rivals questioned his claims about Texas job creation, his stance on illegal immigrants and an executive order he gave as governor, which he admitted was a mistake, that young girls be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
The sharp exchanges and repeated focus on Perry reinforced his growing stature as the candidate to beat in the 2012 race for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.
Perry was on defense for much of the debate but did not become rattled or make a gaffe that could sidetrack his campaign. He eased back from controversial earlier comments on Social Security and the Federal Reserve while deflecting criticism where possible.
He softened his recent harsh criticism of the Social Security retirement program and said he wanted to start "a legitimate conversation" about its future. Perry launched the fight last week when he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and a "monstrous lie."
"The term Ponzi scheme I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people," said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who pressed Perry on whether he still believed the retirement program should be shifted to the states and ended as a federal program.
"Rather than trying to scare seniors, like you're doing and other people, it's time to have a legitimate conversation about how to fix that program so it's not bankrupt," Perry said, promising to keep benefits for those who are now retired or close to it.
The Social Security debate will be watched closely in Florida, which has the country's second-biggest proportion of elderly voters and hosts a crucial nominating contest next year.
"We're frightening the American people, who just want solutions," said Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, adding that Republicans could not win an election by promising to dismantle Social Security. "We've got the answers, we don't have leaders," he said.
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich said he was not worried about Romney and Perry frightening seniors "when President Obama scares them every day."
Perry, a conservative Tea Party favorite, has zoomed past Romney to lead polls since entering the race last month. He frequently drew applause from the crowd at the debate, co-sponsored by Tea Party groups that have reshaped the U.S. political scene with their focus on limited government and reduced spending.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has faded badly in the last month after winning a straw poll in Iowa, targeted Perry over his executive order on the vaccine program in Texas.
She accused him of issuing the order because his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck & Co, the company that made the drug.
"This is just flat-out wrong. The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?" asked Bachmann, who has seen Perry rob her of much of her religious and social conservative support.
Perry said Merck gave him a $5,000 donation. "If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," he said.
Bachmann shot back: "I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents who didn't have a choice."
Romney said Perry's record on job creation in Texas, which has outpaced most other states in adding new jobs, was the result of Perry's lack of an income tax, its broad natural resources and other factors rather than his policies.
"I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player," Romney said.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul noted he was a resident of Texas and had seen his taxes go up and spending increase under Perry, while many of the jobs added were government jobs.
"So I would put a little damper on this, but I don't want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something," Paul said.
Perry tempered earlier comments targeting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, but again said it would be "almost treasonous" to allow the central bank to be used for political purposes.
Those comments were turned back on him later during a discussion of his opposition to a border fence in Texas.
"For Rick to say you can't secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment," Huntsman said.
Other candidates participating were businessman Herman Cain and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
The debate was the fifth of the Republican presidential campaign. It will be followed by another debate next week in Orlando, Florida, as the White House race heats up.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)