AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry, seeking to re-energize his foundering campaign in a nationally televised debate Tuesday night, touted "energy independence" as a key component of his evolving economic recovery plan and tangled with front-runner Mitt Romney over healthcare.
Perry, who was the target of intense attacks from rivals before falling out of the front-runner spot, drew less attention in a debate that seemed to focus more on Romney and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, who has surged in the polls and now appears to be Romney's strongest rival.
In contrast to earlier Republican debates, the 90-minute event in New Hampshire was more subdued and focused exclusively on the economy. The candidates discussed a litany of issues ranging from trade policy with China to how they would get Americans back to work.
The most contentious moment of the day came hours before the debate, when Romney challenged Perry to repudiate remarks by a Dallas pastor who endorsed the Texas governor last week and later described Romney's Mormon faith as "a cult."
Romney issued the demand at an event where he was endorsed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who announced last week that he will not seek the GOP nomination. Christie also assailed the Perry campaign for the remarks by minister Robert Jeffress, saying that "any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner has repeatedly said that the Texas governor doesn't believe Mormonism is a cult.
The debate was widely seen as crucial for Perry to regain his footing and re-emerge as a dominant contender. But the Christie endorsement gave Romney a hefty dose of momentum going into the debate and was designed to solidify the former Massachusetts governor's front-runner status.
Perry said he plans to lay out an economic plan this week, including a "pretty bold" component that will put 1.2 million Americans to work in the energy industry by dramatically boosting domestic production and cutting dependence on foreign oil.
"It's time for another American Declaration of Independence," Perry said. "It's time for energy independence."
Romney touted his economic blueprint that embraces low taxes and trims federal regulations, while Cain repeatedly espoused his "9-9-9" plan, which calls for a 9 percent corporate income tax, 9 percent personal income tax and 9 percent national sales tax.
Perry, whose campaign ran a video likening Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan to the Obama administration's, challenged Romney on it.
Romney said that he is "proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my state" and that the program extended insurance coverage to about 8 percent of the population that was uninsured.
Washington bureau chief Maria Recio contributed to this report.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695