ORLANDO — Rick Perry took another beating from his fellow Republican rivals Thursday, accused of being soft on illegal immigration and two-faced on Social Security.
Perry seemed to expect it — a repeat of the previous two debates — smiling through some of the criticisms, hitting back when he could and refusing to let one of his opponents interrupt him repeatedly.
"It's kinda badminton," Perry said at one point to Mitt Romney, who trails the front-running Texas governor by 9 percentage points in the latest Florida poll.
"I feel pretty normal getting criticized by these folks," Perry said later when the subject of immigration came up during the two-hour Fox News/Google debate in Orlando.
The forum kicked off the state GOP's three-day Presidency 5 conference and underscored how precarious Perry's front-runner status stands at this point. Perry is competing for many of the same conservative voters as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and they appeared much more eager to criticize Perry than Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor stressed his private-sector experience.
"I spent my life in the private sector, not in government,'' he said, differentiating himself from Perry. "I spent four years as governor. I didn't inhale."
Perry touted his record as governor of Texas while it led the country in job growth, and noted it consistently led the nation in attracting relocating companies.
"Something special happened there . . . and we plan to keep it that way," Perry said.
The candidates largely agreed with each other far more than they disagreed. They called President Barack Obama a job-killer and called for wholesale changes to the tax code and less federal involvement in education.
The debate was a prelude to the Presidency 5 straw poll Saturday, when 3,500 Republican grass roots activists and elected leaders will chose their favorite candidate in a mock election.
With Perry on the defensive, the debate did little to help him win over undecided voters.
"I like Perry but boy, he didn't do well. He stumbled," said former state Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis, who still expected to support Perry.
Every previous winner of the state party's straw poll has become the national party's nominee. Many Republican voters said they couldn't decide between Romney and Perry. And the Presidency 5 debate, watched by a live audience of 5,500 cheering Republicans, would help them make up their minds.
There were boos, once when a gay soldier voiced opposition to the just-repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" military policy, another time when Perry stood by the so-called "Texas Dream Act" that subsidized tuition for children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as kids.
Perry was the first name on the lips of most Republicans. And he was also the target of questions from the Internet audience who tuned into the debate on their home computers and wanted to know about Perry's immigration position.
"If you say we should not educate children who come into our state by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said. "We need to educate these children or they will be a drag on society."
Romney vetoed a similar bill when he was Massachusetts governor. He said Perry's plan was "like a magnet that draws people into this country."
Romney noted that children of undocumented immigrants in Texas would pay roughly $100,000 less over four years to attend the University of Texas as Americans from other states.
"That doesn't make sense to me," Romney said to applause. "That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break."
Perry responded that no one on the stage has done more to fight illegal immigration than he has by spending $400 million on enforcement measures at the border.
Santorum jumped in.
"He's soft on illegal immigration," Santorum said. He criticized Perry for also supporting a measure that could have allowed health insurance to be bought and sold across the Texas-Mexico border.
"I think he's very weak on this issue of American sovereignty," Santorum said.
Said Bachmann: "I would build a fence on America's southern border on every mile, every yard, every inch."
Perry said a border fence wasn't realistic.
"The idea that you are going to build a wall or fence across 1,200 miles (of Texas) and then 800 miles more to Tijuana does not make sense," Perry said.
Perry was at the center of criticisms for one reason: He leads.
None of the other candidates did enough to stand out, except Newt Gingrich, who repeatedly charmed the crowd with his knowledge and his wit.
Perry also had to defend himself on Social Security — an issue pressed by Romney, who pointed out that Perry, in his book Fed Up!, called the entitlement program a "failure" and an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme.
A Quinnipiac University poll Thursday suggests Romney won't get much political mileage out of attacking Perry for calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." More than half of Republicans — the only ones who can vote in the upcoming winter primary — say it's "fair" to describe the entitlement program that way.
Perry's comments, though, could prove more problematic in a general-election race, with 58 percent of all voters saying the comment comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme is "unfair." And voters in Florida — where more than half of the electorate is older than 60 — aren't sure if he wants to end or fix Social Security, which they don't want changed.
Perry accused Romney of misrepresenting his record. He said "people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about." He didn't present specifics about how he'd want to change the program, nor did he present a jobs plan requested by the debate moderators.
Romney said Perry was backtracking.
"There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying — and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional," Romney said.
Perry turned the tables on Romney and suggested he backed away from his "RomneyCare" health insurance plan that was a template for President Obama's health plan: "As a matter of fact, between books, your hard copy book, you said it was exactly what the American people needed, to have that RomneyCare given to them as you had in Massachusetts. Then in your paperback, you took that line out."
Gary Johnson, a newcomer to the debate stage, took some heat over the issue of Cuba. He said he supported new direct flights to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa because it could promote trade.
That drew a quick rebuke from Bachmann, who said those flights should not be allowed as Cuba is recognized as a state sponsor of terror.
Johnson had the laugh line of the night: "My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready projects than this administration."
With the other candidates hitting Perry repeatedly and ignoring Romney, the Texas governor tried to resurrect the image of Romney the flip-flopper. He cited Romney's prior support for gun control, for abortion rights and for mandating health insurance in Massachusetts.
"I think Americans sometimes just don't know what Mitt Romney they're dealing with," Perry said. "We'll wait until tomorrow and see which Romney we're really talking to."
"I'll say it again," Romney said, "nice try."
At the debate's end, the candidates were each asked whom they'd choose as a running mate. Herman Cain and Gingrich seemed to be the most popular. No one chose the front-runners.
"When all is said and done," said Jon Huntsman, "the two guys standing in the middle here — Romney and Perry — aren't going to be around because they're going to bludgeon each other to death."
The audience roared.
Times staff writer Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report