Image: Michele Bachmann
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Republican presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks to employees during a plant tour at Sukup Manufacturing, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011, in Sheffield.
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updated 9/22/2011 4:58:41 PM ET 2011-09-22T20:58:41

Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann said Thursday that social conservatives don't have to settle for a nominee who does not share their values, and rival Mitt Romney said the party should nominate someone from the private sector — double-teaming criticism of front-runner Rick Perry.

Romney and Bachmann opened a forum on faith and freedom ahead of Thursday night's televised debate with sharp criticism of their chief rival. Other competitors were to follow at the event tailored to the religious voters who are a key part of their party's base.

Bachmann said 2012 is a time for the GOP to nominate someone "who is a true social conservative." She didn't mention her rivals by name, but she has criticized Perry's positions on illegal immigration and mandated vaccinations.

Video: Bachmann struggles to fix campaign (on this page)
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For his part, Romney's familiar remarks pitched him as a proven businessman who detoured into politics for one term as Massachusetts' governor.

"'There are plenty of people who are running for president who are politicians. Nothing wrong with that. ... I think it helps to have someone who has had a job, to create jobs for the American people," said Romney, making his second presidential run.

The Perry campaign, with the Texas governor to speak near the end of the forum on the sidelines of a three-day GOP meeting, kept its eye on Romney.

"Romney flip-flops are legendary and are exactly why he isn't connecting with conservative voters," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "After years of pandering and policy evolution, Mr. Romney just can't be trusted on important economic and social issues."

The forums and debate come as the Republicans increase their criticism of each other. Romney and Perry have spent recent days trading jabs over Social Security, job creation and who is a better Republican.

It's the latest example of the campaigns microscopically examining their rivals' records and past statements in a game of political one-upmanship.

For instance: Texas added jobs during the economic recession under Gov. Perry's leadership. But unemployment went up last month and is at the highest level since 1987, Romney has noted.

Romney filled in Massachusetts' $3 billion budget hole without raising taxes as governor. Yet the state trailed 46 others in job creation, Perry shot back.

A poll released early Thursday suggested Florida Republicans slightly prefer Perry over Romney in their party's battle to find a nominee to face President Barack Obama next year.

Perry was favored by 28 percent of the 374 registered Republican voters, compared with 22 percent who want Romney as their nominee. The random telephone survey, conducted Sept. 14-19 by Quinnipiac University, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.

With five months remaining until the first nominating contests, the GOP contenders came to senior citizen-rich Florida this week, ready with lines sharpened for fellow Republicans more than for their once-favorite target, Obama.

"I've forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters in Washington.

And Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favorite of the party's libertarian wing, renewed his criticism of Perry as a typical politician.

"He knows what people are thinking about, that's how politicians operate," Paul told reporters Wednesday before heading to Florida.

Also joining the Thursday night debate: Georgia businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Bachmann struggles to fix campaign

  1. Closed captioning of: Bachmann struggles to fix campaign

    >> michele bachmann is back in iowa trying to recapture her straw poll magic. it's been downhill since then. she continues to exploit the hpv issue against rick perry .

    >> it's very important that you never basically say anything that you can't back up. she's made what was very positive debate and the issue about perry to where it's now an issue about her and she needs to move on.

    >> would you like to see her as commander in chief?

    >> ed rollins served as bachmann 's campaign manager until recently. to quote one of your favorite presidents, there you go again.

    >> ed rollins in a former presidential candidate as adviser to presidential candidate , what was it about michele bachmann that didn't quite click?

    >> that had a lot to do with it. perry was governor of the largest republican state in the country today jumped in and drew from the same group of voters. you get on stage quickly and eight-week campaign when she won the straw poll which no one has ever done. a lot of people left on the wayside and there's a lot of attention to her and i think perry jumped in and took a lot of that attention with her.

    >> the attention she got was not healthy attention because she misstated things and took antidotes and the woman that came up to her after the debate in florida. what is it about her that isn't ready for prime time ?

    >> part of coming out of the house of representatives is it's a different environment than running statewide as a governor does. her entire political career is in one area of minnesota where she was elected to state senate and congress. it's a big arena. bottom line is there's a scrutiny by the media as you know having been on the campaign trail many times when all of a sudden you get up in 150 reporters asking you different things, sometimes you say things that are not appropriate and you shouldn't say and to a certain extent that's part of her history.

    >> " usa today " editorial today said bachmann was irresponsible to spread the fear of this vaccine. bachmann 's nationally broadcast suggestion that a vaccine can cause mental retardation was irresponsible. standards for higher public figure are higher than i'm passing around something i heard from someone and higher from someone who wants to be president.

    >> the bottomrt of left out of the first part of the debate. had a good hit on perry and raised significant issues about executive overreach but unfortunately the next day or even that night when someone came up and told her this, she repeated a story. what we tried to do was vet everything that was ever told her. we tried to put a system in play that if someone walks up with a go ahe good idea or concept it was vetted.

    >> let's look at the race now. it's a two-man race. how do you see it?

    >> by polls today which are just indicators of today. the two of them are strong candidates with strong organizations and the ability to raise money. i think michele if she somehow for some reason could win iowa than she could get another look. right now she's competing hard in iowa . she doesn't have ability or resources to go beyond that. iowa at this point in time where perry and romney can go into south carolina , arizona, and other places.

    >> what are perry 's vulnerabilities?

    >> he's been a governor for ten years. there were a lot of things that went on and no accusations here but bottom line is anyone that's been governor for a long time in a state with cronyism, you find deals that have been made. and that will be exposed in the course of the campaign either by us or certainly by the obama team if he gets that far. the other part of him he's got great strengths. a solid conservative. he's got the tea party base and i think to a certain extent his jumping in the race the day she won the straw poll took a lot of that glamour away from her.

    >> why in recent polling are so plane republicans not satisfied with the field and not happy with mitt romney . he's been running for so long?

    >> that's part of the drill. he got beat up badly in the last go-around last time. there was a flip-flop and a variety of things. i think at this point in time when you look at the same polls you look at people see him as a stronger candidate in the general election . republicans draw pretty hard lines and you've got to meet certain litmus tests. he was a moderate republican when he ran for governor of massachusetts . he made evolution slow but sure to be a more conservative to try to fit the primary voter.

    >> ed rollins , i can never forget when maureen reagan ran for office and you said she was not the best candidate.

    >> she was not the best candidate. she ran and didn't do well. she was a great lady and as ronald reagan once said to me, when she wanted to be co-chairman of the committee which she was effective at, be glad i only have one child that wants to be in politics.

    >> i think michael is thinking about it.

    >> michael is a great conservative.

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