By THOMAS BEAUMONT
JEFFERSON, Iowa (AP) -- Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said Thursday the health care bill GOP rival Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts paved the way for President Barack Obama's federal health law last year and cost the state jobs.
Perry's criticism was his sharpest yet of Romney, who led in national polls of Republican voters until Perry entered the race last month.
And it came in the wake of three days of heavy criticism by Romney of statements Perry has made about Social Security.
"I think it's important that we put as our nominee someone that does not blur the lines between President Obama and the Republican Party," Perry told about 200 Republican activists in Iowa, where the 2012 presidential nominating campaign begins this winter.
Perry said the Massachusetts health care plan Romney signed in 2006 contributed to the state's low rank in job growth during his one term as governor from 2003 to 2007.
Perry was referring to a study published by conservative Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University which stated that the Massachusetts program has cost the state thousands of jobs, raised health care costs and slowed income growth.
Perry promotes Texas' job growth as he campaigns for the GOP nomination, casting his efforts to reduce regulations and curb litigation as a model for the nation's lingering high unemployment. Texas has added more than 1 million jobs during Perry's decade as governor.
Jobs and the economy are a leading issue in the race for the GOP nomination, and Romney has touted his decades of work as a venture capitalist and investment company founder before serving as governor as expertise he could use as president to guide an economic recovery.
Since Perry's entry into the race, Romney has criticized the Texan for being too tied to the public sector at a time when a business-minded leader is needed as the nominee.
Perry's attack cuts directly at the niche in the race Romney has worked to create in his second bid for the nomination.
"The difference between me and President Obama are going to be very, very great," Perry said. "What we have done will serve as a blueprint for this country."
Romney has shifted his approach to Perry this month, criticizing instead his statements about Social Security, including that the federal retirement program should be dismantled and run by individual states. Romney raised the issue during a Republican candidates' debate in Florida on Monday, where Perry also faced criticism from rivals about his support for education benefits for children of illegal immigrants and an executive order he signed requiring school-age girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease. "Gov. Perry was clearly rattled by his poor debate performance in Tampa," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "As a result, he is trying desperately to distract people from the very serious questions that were raised about his record."
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