Image: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speak during a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2011.
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updated 10/30/2011 4:15:01 PM ET 2011-10-30T20:15:01

Rick Perry on Sunday sought to reassure GOP primary voters concerned about his wobbly presidential debate performances, saying he would draw sharp distinctions with the Democratic incumbent in televised showdowns next year.

"I'm not worried a bit that I'll be able to stand on the stage with Barack Obama and draw a very bright line," Perry said.

The Texas governor, driving for front-runner status as the most viable conservative in the wide-open field, offered up samples of the scathing rhetoric he uses against the president, from the economy to war policy and personal credibility.

First Read: Perry defends jobs plan
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Perry also defended his voluntary flat-tax proposal and the notion that it could bring in trillions of dollars less in revenue than the current tax code.

"There's nothing wrong with lower revenue," he said. "I don't want more revenue in Washington, D.C.'s hands. I want more revenue in the private sector job creators' hands."

The tough talk came as Perry manages the fallout from his debate performances and all of the GOP candidates fight to lead the pack in Iowa just two months before the first voting of 2012 begins there.

Video: Were debates a mistake for Perry? (on this page)

There is no clear leader in that contest. A Des Moines Register poll on Saturday showed former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain at the head of the pack, with the support of 23 percent of respondents. Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was next with 22 percent.

Perry, who rated just 7 percent in that survey, has taken a particularly steep fall since announcing his candidacy in August, struggling through parts of five debates and dogged especially by Romney.

How, he was asked on "Fox News Sunday," would he perform against the erudite Obama in a general election next year?

What counts, Perry said, is how a candidate would govern.

"We got a great debater, a smooth politician in the White House right now, that's not working really good for America," Perry said.

Perry plans to attend all of the debates now scheduled in November as well as a December one. "With as many debates as we got coming up, I may end up being a pretty good debater before it's all been said and done," he said.

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On Iraq and Afghanistan, Perry accused Obama of pursuing an "aimless foreign policy" by making big decisions without adequately considering the advice of his commanders. He said the president has endangered Americans on the ground by announcing that U.S. troops would leave Iraq by year's end.

"He has lost his standing from the standpoint of being a commander in chief who has any idea about what's going on in those theaters," Perry said.

On the leading domestic issue, Perry said the president has "taken an experiment with the American economy and turned it into absolute Frankenstein experience."

Cain piled on the president, too.

"A responsible commander in chief" would have done more to seek out the counsel of the military's ground commanders before agreeing to pull all troops out of Iraq, Cain said. Doing that leaves a "power vacuum," he added.

"It also leaves it unclear as to how we are going to deal with other nations," Cain said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The U.S. deadline to pull troops out by the end of 2011 was originally set by President George W. Bush. Obama decided to move ahead with the plan after Washington and Baghdad couldn't agree on the conditions for keeping a small contingent of U.S. troops behind to train Iraqi forces.

Video: Perry had the worst week in politics (on this page)

For his part, the president has mostly stayed out of the GOP nomination fight.

"I'm going to wait until everyone is voted off the island," he told "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno earlier in the week.

But a top adviser, David Plouffe, went after Romney, the early front-runner in the race. Plouffe, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign, said Romney has "moved all over the place" on issues from abortion to gay marriage over his career and might not have firm enough convictions to make the tough decisions as president.

"You get the sense with Mitt Romney that if he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue, to win an election, he'd say it," Plouffe said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

It's not yet clear which of the Republicans might survive the nomination fight. While Cain "seems to have tapped into something," Plouffe said he found it interesting that "Romney continues to have 75, 80 percent of his party looking somewhere else, and so it'll be interesting to see if he can turn that around."

The Romney campaign shot back by saying Obama "can't run on his abysmal economic record and he is desperate to distract from the historic loss of middle-class jobs that has occurred on his watch. Americans won't be fooled by false and negative attacks."

Republicans in Iowa aren't leaning toward any one candidate, even though Romney's essentially been running for president since losing in the state in 2008.

Despite his showing in the Iowa poll, Cain trails both Romney and Perry in fundraising by the millions.

Perry is starting to focus on Iowa with a new ad, and on Sunday, he hit Romney for being on both sides of debates over gun control, abortion and gay rights.

"I have been a consistent conservative," Perry said. "I don't get confused with just telling the truth."

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

Video: Were debates a mistake for Perry?

  1. Closed captioning of: Were debates a mistake for Perry?

    >> rick perry 's opponents have pounced on his decision to opt out of some future debates, but the governor says it was a mistake to enter the debates in the first place.

    >> we are not called to be perfect. if any of you have watched my debate performances over the last three or four times, you know i am far from perfect.

    >> ray sullivan is communications director for the perry campaign and joins me now. hey, mr. sullivan, thanks so much for joining us. let's talk about the debates. was it a mistakes or does he have to be in the debates?

    >> well, the governor has been in five debates. there have been eight republican debates . i think there's something like 18 more scheduled before the end of january, but it is an opportunity for the governor to talk about his best in the field jobs record, increasingly our jobs plan, mr. harwood mentioned the flat tax probably the governor put out earlier in the week. we're going to be doing more debates, and it is part of the process .

    >> but the bottom line is he's got to be able to compete. barack obama and hillary clinton had more than 20 debates, and that really ask what toughened up obama and made him the victor for the nomination. doesn't rick perry , especially because he was not as well-known as hadn't run before, doesn't he have to prove he can compete in this arena.

    >> we have to prove we can compete and win across the board, that means the five debates we've done, the debates we're going to do, as well as working on voters in iowa and new hampshire , rolling out those strong jobs policies the governor put out on tuesday in south carolina , a plan to do a 20% flat tax to cut federal spending to really jolt our economy back to health. that has been his strength as a job creator, fiscal conservative in texas, and he needs to debate that at the debate forum and also like he's doing today in new hampshire , one-on-one with individual reporters, local press corp., we're trying to balance our time and prioritize our time with the voters. they have an important job to do, we respect them and want to take the message directly to the voters.

    >> just as the governor was rolling out his new fiscal message, 2020 , and the new tax reform plan he's proposed, he seemed to be stepping all over it with the distraction of the birther issue. this is his most recent comment on that today.

    >> i don't consider making fun of something being a mistake. donald trump and i were having dinner, the president's the president, and that's a fact, so the issue of whether or not -- i don't think americans see that as anything other than a distraction, just like i see it as a distraction, so we're talking about -- i don't think this is a mistake. i don't think getting people to work is a mistake.

    >> clearly he's trying to get back on message here, but why did he say what he said to "parade" magazine, why was he doubling down on it again with john harwick?

    >> i think the governor made it clear the last couple of days that president obama is an american citizen , he is the president, this is a distraction, the governor did not intend for this to be a serious discussion, but look, we understand and increasingly understand that this process is aimed to distract the candidates and distract the voters, so our challenge and goal will be to get back, as the governor did earlier, back on that strong jobs record, policy initiatives aimed at revitalizing our economy, and i think you'll see more of that down the road.

    >> norman major, i just mentioned earlier, the state senator in new hampshire , changed his endorsement of governor perry to mitt romney partly because of that birther comment.

    >> then he was doing that based on something that was not serious and that has been resolved, but look, this primary race in the field is fluid, voters are moving back and forth. we've seen polls up and down, we've seen support come from governor romney to us, and it's going to move around. the most important thing is to spend time with those voters, talk to the american people about revitalizing this economy, and again, that's been part of our strategy the last couple of weeks is to roll out concrete job creation plans, cutting taxes, getting rid of the excess federal spending in washington, passing a balanced budget amendment . david gregory is, of course, the moderator of nbc's "meet the press" and joins us now. a lot to chew over here, we have the president taking the steps, which are not documents they can sign, they are not technically executive orders , this does seem small board.

    >> look, there's a bit of bill clinton here in the

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