ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Republican Rick Perry accused rival Mitt Romney of flip-flopping on healthcare and education on Thursday at a U.S. presidential debate where he aggressively sought to protect his front-running position.
Texas Governor Perry attempted to change the narrative from two previous debates, where he came under fierce attack from Romney and other candidates.
Perry, the Tea Party movement favourite, is ahead in polls of Republicans but his lead is fragile over Romney, who is the choice of many mainstream Republicans. A USA Today/Gallup poll on Wednesday found Perry leading Romney 31 percent to 24 percent among likely Republican voters.
Perry accused former Massachusetts governor Romney of backing an Obama administration education reform known as Race to the Top, and favouring the White House's healthcare reforms.
"I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with." Perry said.
"We'll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight."
But the front-runner took fire over a Texas immigration plan to grant tuition aid to children of illegal immigrants, a position that could hurt him among conservatives.
Polls show Perry and Romney are way ahead of the other seven candidates in the debate in the race to be the Republican nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
Republicans increasingly see a good chance to oust Obama from the White House with the U.S. economy struggling to rebound from 9.1 percent unemployment and chronic debt and deficits.
On a day the stock market plunged on fears of renewed recession, the U.S. economy was the top topic and all the candidates promised conservative prescriptions to fix it and declared Obama's economic leadership a failure.
Perry said Romney first wrote in a book that a healthcare plan he introduced in Massachusetts was exactly what the American people needed, but took the line out in the book's later, paperback edition when criticism of the reform grew.
And Perry accused Romney of backing Obama's Race to the Top education plan which violates conservative principles of getting the federal government out of U.S. public education.
"I'm not sure exactly what he's saying," Romney replied. "I don't support any particular program as he's suggesting."
That prompted a look of disbelief from Perry.
Romney and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann accused Perry of coddling illegal immigrants with a Texas policy to allow their children to gain education tuition assistance.
"I would not allow taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal aliens or for their children," Bachmann said. "That's a magnet. End the magnets for illegal aliens to come into the United States of America."
Perry said that as governor of a state with a long border with Mexico, no one had worked harder than he has on border security. He fiercely defended the program as correct for his state, saying to do nothing would leave the immigrant children as a burden.
To those who oppose it, he said, "I don't think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children because they will be a drag on our society."
Immigration is a lightning rod in Republican politics. Senator John McCain's support for a reform plan in 2007 nearly ended his 2008 presidential bid.
Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen in Washington; editing by Todd Eastham