Texas Gov. Rick Perry contended Monday he has the best economic record and executive experience in government of any Republican presidential candidate, contrasting his credentials with those of his top two rivals, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann.
"I respect all the other candidates in the field but there is no one that can stand toe-to-toe with us," Perry told The Associated Press in an interview at the start of his first full day campaigning in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.
Perry also offered his first policy proposal as a candidate, calling for a six-month moratorium on federal business regulations that he said were holding back job growth nationally. He brought the proposal forward just as President Barack Obama traveled to the Midwest for a bus tour and speeches on the economy.
The Texan argued that the Obama administration's Labor Department and Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, have restrained business growth with excessive restrictions.
Taken together, Perry's comments about his own credentials and the policy proposal were an effort to establish him as the strongest Republican able to challenge Obama on the economy — and lay claim to Romney's mantle of the jobs candidate.
That effort comes in earnest just days after Perry entered the GOP field and as the race comes into sharper focus.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has emphasized his business experience, sits atop national polls. But he's now facing a double-barreled threat from Perry, Texas' longest-serving governor who formally entered the GOP race Saturday, and Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who won a test vote of Iowans that same day.
In the interview, Perry never directly criticized the two even when given opportunities to comment on them directly. Rather, he promoted his own job-growth and gubernatorial records.
Later, Perry told reporters during a visit to the Iowa State Fair: "There's plenty of time to look at his four years in Massachusetts and my 10 years in Texas."
As he campaigns, Romney is spending more time talking about his decades in the business world, including his time as an executive at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm he founded, than his record as governor. He's trying to sell himself as the strongest candidate on the economy but has been criticized by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman for Massachusetts' ranking 47th in terms of job growth, while Utah ranked No. 1.
In the interview, Perry sidestepped an opportunity to assail Romney directly, saying: "Trying to compare the job creation and the numbers of jobs with any other state is just not an apples-to-apples comparison."
But later, Perry, who has worked in government for 27 years, said being a business executive is not the only way to create jobs.
"I was in the private sector for 13 years after I left the Air Force," Perry told reporters at the state fair when asked whether private sector experience trumps. "I wasn't on Wall Street. I wasn't working at Bain Capital. But the principles of the free market, they work whether you're in a farm field in Iowa or whether you're on Wall Street."
Perry said that the more than 1 million jobs added to the rolls in Texas in his 10 years as governor make him the strongest choice for GOP voters on their top priority. He credited his efforts to pass legislation reducing taxes and regulations, and curbing lawsuits.
In the interview, Perry also said Republicans were looking for a tested candidate, and that no other candidate had compiled the record of economic development or legislative success.
It was a clear reference to Bachmann.
She has faced criticism from rivals — including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race Sunday — who have claimed she has accomplished little in her three terms in the U.S. House compared with the record of a governor.
"It's a fair comparison," Perry said. "Understanding how that process works, but more importantly making that process work, of which we have done in Texas, is inarguably better than ... anyone who is aspiring to be the president."
While making a strong pitch as a pro-business, establishment conservative, Perry, who held a prayer rally for 30,000 people in Houston this month, said he would not cede the influential evangelical vote.
"I'm going to talk about the economy; don't get any ideas that I'm going to run away from my faith or my beliefs," he said.
The drawling Texan spent his first full day in Iowa at breakfast with Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, at the governor's mansion in Des Moines, and later spent four hours sauntering through the fair. Perry buttonholed individual fairgoers, including Des Moines-area Republican Kim Schmett, who talked with him about wind-generated electricity.
"We don't need anybody apologizing anywhere in this world about America," Perry shouted into a microphone during a speech at the fair, sparking cheers from the crowd of about 200.
Perry was met later by about 200 supporters at an Iowa City diner, before ending the day with a campaign stop in Iowa City.
Branstad, who has not endorsed a candidate, specifically cited Perry's signing of legislation to reduce court damages in medical malpractice cases as an example of the Texas governor's record that would impress economic conservatives in Iowa, many of whom have been looking for a pro-business candidate but have been slow to embrace Romney.
"I think what he's done at the state level in Texas certainly sits well with what Iowans are looking for," Branstad said.