Texas Governor Rick Perry made his closely-watched debut at a Republican debate, weeks after surging into the race as frontrunner to fight Barack Obama for the White House.

Within minutes of taking the stage on Wednesday, Perry and former GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney came to blows over the central issue of jobs, trading jabs about their records as governors in Texas and Massachusetts.

WATCH: Romney, Perry spar on jobs creation at GOP debate

"What Americans are looking for is someone who can get this country working again," said Perry, taking aim at Romney's claim to have created tens of thousands of jobs in businesses he backed as an investment fund manager.

Romney "did a great job of creating jobs in the private sector all around the world," said Perry, suggesting the jobs created by his fund were more overseas than in the United States.

The former Massachusetts governor touted his job creation role, saying he had created more in his state alone than Obama had nationwide.

Jobs and the struggling US economy were always going to feature high on the agenda of the debate, ahead of a keynote speech by President Obama on Thursday aimed at tackling zero US job growth and reviving his own political fortunes.

Perry looked relaxed as he turned up early -- apparently before most of the other seven candidates -- to prepare for the two-hour debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California.

WATCH: GOP debate audience cheers Perry’s execution record

He only joined the Republican field for the White House in the last month, energizing a lackluster GOP race and leapfrogging straight into the lead ahead of Romney.

Two new polls this week put Perry in a strong lead: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave him 38 percent against 23 percent for Romney, while a Washington Post/ABC News poll put them on 27 percent and 22 percent.

But with no single candidate inspiring voters there is everything to play for at Wednesday's debate, where Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann was also seeking to capitalize on the movement's popular appeal.

Bachmann, a Minnesota lawmaker, was expected to try to grab back the spotlight seized by Perry when he announced his candidacy in mid-August, taking media attention away from her victory in a GOP presidential straw poll in Iowa.

Also on stage was former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul of Texas, businessman and former talk show host Herman Cain, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Utah governor and US envoy to China Jon Huntsman.

WATCH: Ron Paul: Abolish minimum wage to ‘help poor people’

But Perry, making his debut, was the center of attention: he had been due to attend a Republican debate with some of the candidates earlier this week, but pulled out at the last minute to deal with fires raging in Texas.

As well as the struggling economy -- seen as a key area of vulnerability for Obama -- the debate could see the candidates stake out positions on Tea Party hot button issues including global warming, abortion and the threat of China.

While much can happen as hopefuls jostle for position ahead of the party primaries, for the moment Perry and Romney appear the frontrunners to take on Obama in the November 2012 presidential election.

Not among the Republican candidates -- yet -- is former Alaska governor and surprise 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has kept observers guessing about whether she will throw her hat into the White House ring.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani also raised eyebrows this week when he said he might even consider running for the GOP nomination.

The GOP debate is the first of three over the next two weeks. Cable news channel CNN is to host a "Tea Party Republican Debate" on September 12, followed by a Fox News-organized event on September 22, both in Florida.