The two titans of the Republican presidential contest hammered each other over job creation and Social Security on Wednesday night, as Rick Perry got his first chance to articulate his campaign message on the national debate stage.

The Texas governor sparred early and often with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom he has overtaken as front-runner since joining the race a month ago. With Perry trying to defend that position and Romney trying to reclaim it, the two came armed with zingers to take each other down a peg.

"Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry quipped, in a stinging reference to the former Massachusetts governor who lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush.

Romney immediately shot back that “George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did.”

The critiques were among multiple rapid-fire exchanges between the two candidates, who shared the stage with six other White House hopefuls at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., a symbolic setting that invoked the memory of the conservative Republican who swept to two terms as president.

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The debate also marked a key test for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose prospects rose last month with her win in the Iowa Straw Poll only to be overshadowed by Perry's entrance into the race.

None of the GOP contenders had anything positive to say about Obama, either his record on creating jobs or the health care law they have vowed to repeal if they win the White House.

Bachmann said she would provide the "strong, bold leader in the presidency who will lead that effort. None of us should ever think that the repeal bill will just come to our desk," she said in a pledge that drew applause from the audience.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich resisted an effort to draw him into conflict with other Republicans on stage. "I'm frankly not interested in your efforts to get Republicans fighting each other," he said, sparking an even louder round of applause. He said all Republicans should "defeat efforts by the news media" to spark an internal struggle when the real objective is to defeat Obama in 2012.

But moments later, businessman Herman Cain said that after trying to defeat Democratic efforts to create national health care, "I'm running against Romneycare," the legislation that passed requiring residents of Massachusetts to purchase coverage.

Perry -- who, after taking several jabs from the other candidates, said he felt like "the pinata here at the party" -- had first claimed his state created more jobs in three months than Massachusetts created in four years while Romney was governor.

Romney, in response, chalked up Texas’ success to its oil and gas sector and policies maintained by a Republican legislature, which he said Perry could not claim credit to. “It would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet,” Romney said.

To distinguish himself, Romney stressed his experience in the private sector over his experience as Massachusetts’ governor. But Perry, while praising Romney’s business record, said “his public-sector record did not match that.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sided with Perry when he turned to Romney and said, "47th just isn't going to cut it, my friend," a reference to the rank Massachusetts had among the 50 states in creating jobs during Romney's term.

But he also sought to rebut Perry's claim to be chief executive of the country's top job-producing state.

"I hate to rain on the parade of the great Lone Star State governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the No. 1 job creator during my years in service," Huntsman said.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania rounded out the contenders on the stage for the debate hosted by MSNBC and Politico.

The debate was the first of three in as many weeks, at a time the polls show Obama's popularity sinking, possibly making the GOP nomination worth more than it appeared only a few months ago.

Perry and Romney also sparred sharply over Social Security, with Romney criticizing Perry for calling the retirement safety net a failure and “Ponzi scheme.”

Romney said he agrees the current funding formula for Social Security is not sound. But he disagreed that it’s a failure. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security,” he said.

Perry stood by his remarks, saying “maybe it’s time to have some provocative language.”

He also took a swing at former Bush adviser Karl Rove, who has criticized Perry’s remarks on Social Security and other topics. “Karl has been over the top for a long time. … I’m not responsible for Karl anymore,” Perry said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.