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With Target on Back of Perry, Romney Seeks to Capitalize

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A series of debates and events this month will test Rick Perry’s staying power and Mitt Romney's strategy of focusing on the president instead of his GOP rivals.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost his front-runner status in the GOP presidential race after Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumped in last month. But with Perry drawing intense scrutiny and getting roughed up by the other GOP contenders, don't count Romney out yet.

As Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ganged up on Perry over social issues at a debate on Monday, Romney stepped up his attacks on Perry, a Tea Party favorite, giving the GOP establishment a reason to cheer Romney's candidacy.

“In a dominant fashion, he showed he could take and fend off Gov. Perry’s blows and at the same time deliver sound, hard-hitting policy criticisms of Gov. Perry,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who is unaligned in the race. “After that debate, Romney looked strong. Perry looked dazed.”

The Romney campaign says it is the beginning of a new phase. Aides say the time has come to contrast Romney’s record with those of his opponents, and they expect Romney will keep the pressure on Perry, specifically. Criticism on issues like immigration, Social Security and jobs is expected on the campaign trail, in an upcoming debate sponsored by Fox News and Google next week, and, perhaps, in TV and radio ads eventually.

The shift reflects a growing sense of urgency in Romney's campaign and others that Perry must be knocked down before he becomes too strong and runs away with the nomination.

For months, Romney sat atop public opinion polls across the nation and in early primary states, seemingly the top preference of Republican voters who had denied him their party's presidential nomination in 2008. He spent much of the year ignoring darts from his rivals.

Then Perry entered the race a month ago and immediately shot to the top of polls. And within days, Romney started drawing contrasts with Perry without naming him, highlighting his own business background while generally noting that there also were "career politicians" in the race. It was an obvious reference to Perry, who -- like some other candidates -- has spent most of his adult life in and around politics. Even when asked pointed questions, Romney was careful not to directly engage.

But at Monday’s debate, Romney quickly became Perry's lead interrogator.

"The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program, as you did six months ago when your book came out, and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?" Romney asked Perry.

"I think we ought to have a conversation," Perry said before being cut off.

"We're having that right now, governor. We're running for president," Romney quipped, forcing Perry to defend a controversial position about the popular retirement program in a state with a huge retired population.

Perry also got hit from his other rivals for mandating the vaccination of young girls for sexually transmitted diseases linked to cervical cancer.

Santorum said they weren’t beating up on Perry.

“No, this is the first time in a month he’s had to answer for some of the policy positions,” Santorum told Fox News. “He’s gotten a free ride for a month from the media trying to crown this man the new front-runner, and he’s done a great job.”

“He’s soared in the polls. I wish I had one-tenth of the media coverage that Gov. Perry has gotten in the last month,” Santorum said. “Now people have to look at his record.”

As for Romney, it's unclear whether his recent shift will resonate with voters.

Perry has led in several national polls, most recently earning 27 percent to Romney's 22 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News survey released last week. But tn a new Gallup poll, Romney was the only candidate whose  positive intensity score improved, rising from 11 in August to 16. That still trails Perry's score of 24. 

On Monday, Romney picked up a key endorsement from his former rival, ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out the race last month and who was being courted by Perry’s camp.

But Perry is drawing support from prominent Republicans, too. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Perry on Monday.

“The amazing thing is Gov. Perry in Texas has been able to create jobs during one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression,” Jindal told Fox News on Tuesday. “He is showing that with fiscally conservative principles, we can bring that same common sense to Washington, D.C., get us back on track.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.