WASHINGTON — — After circling each other for days, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Texas Gov. Rick Perry clashed Wednesday in a nationally televised debate that was focused on state economic policy but tied closely to presidential politics.
The state leaders — both of whom are feeling out runs for president in 2016 — traded flurries of statistics and jabs as each used the 30-minute appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" to argue his vision for the nation's economy.
Debating one another for the first time since 2011, the governors shared a national spotlight hours after Perry arrived in Maryland to attack O'Malley's business policies — the latest trip in a years-long effort by the Republican to lure companies away from Democratic states.
Perry cast Maryland as a state that owes most of its success to its proximity to Washington, and argued that people and businesses are streaming to Texas for lower taxes and less regulation.
O'Malley countered that Texas is creating mostly minimum-wage jobs while shortchanging the middle class — a point pressed further by Stephanie Cutter, one of the show's moderators and a former campaign aide to President Barack Obama.
"It sounds to me like you'd rather have no job than a minimum-wage job," Perry said in a response to a question from Cutter. "You have to have these minimum-wage jobs to get people in the workforce."
For his part, O'Malley told the show's other moderator, former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, that he "absolutely" believes a minimum-wage job is better than nothing. But he said Maryland — largely because of its top-ranked schools — has done better giving people a shot at upward mobility.
"There's dignity in all work and every job's important," O'Malley said. "You not only have to be willing to cut your budget … you also have to be willing to make the smart investments."
O'Malley and Perry squared off amid open speculation about their ambitions.
Perry, who has served as Texas governor since George W. Bush left Austin for the White House 13 years ago, said recently he would not seek another term, but he left open the possibility of a second run at the White House.
He was briefly the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2012 but dropped out after a series of lackluster debates.
O'Malley, who is term-limited, has said he is considering a run and has scheduled an extensive itinerary through key primary states this fall.
Hours before his appearance on Crossfire, O'Malley's aides announced that he would speak to Democrats in New Hampshire in November.
O'Malley and Perry each came prepared with a dizzying stream of statistics to counter the other's arguments.
At one point, the governors traded lists of high-profile companies that choose to do business in their state. O'Malley named Lockheed Martin, Under Armour and Marriott.
"We're recruiting them," Perry interrupted.
"Well, you're welcome to try," O'Malley responded.
But Perry's effort to woo Maryland businesses hit a few bumps Wednesday.
A Texas super PAC that opposed his 2012 presidential bid aired a radio ad in Maryland questioning his economic policies. And the governor was forced to defend his decision to tour a Prince George's County gun maker two days after a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.
Jenifer Pauliukonis, Maryland head of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, called Perry's visit to Accokeek-based Beretta USA "callous," given Monday's shooting at the historic military facility about 20 miles up the road.
Of 12 people killed in the incident, six were from Maryland.
"I just thought it was very disrespectful for him to not think about that and not appreciate that," she said.
Speaking to reporters outside a Bethesda steakhouse, Perry said he's a "pro-Second Amendment guy" from a state that has long supported gun rights.
"Beretta has been a great manufacturer in Maryland," Perry said. "They feel not only underappreciated, they feel under attack."
The company, with about 300 employees, floated the idea of leaving Maryland after O'Malley moved tougher gun regulations through the General Assembly this year, but ultimately decided to stay. Company officials have left open the possibility of future expansions out of state.
Perry's visit to Beretta was not open to reporters. A company spokesman declined to comment.
The governor touched down after launching a $500,000 advertising campaign criticizing Maryland's business climate — a formula Perry has used ahead of similar job-scouting trips to New York, Connecticut and California. The ads and travel have been funded by TexasOne, an economic development group funded by private donors.
Perry emerged from a lunch with business and GOP leaders Wednesday saying it was too early to tell whether the trip would pay off. Sounding familiar refrains, he argued that Maryland over-taxes and over-regulates its economy.
And he swiped at stormwater fees imposed by lawmakers this year on the state's largest jurisdictions.
"We pray for rain in Texas," he said. "They tax it in Maryland."
O'Malley and Perry had not spoken since a 2011 debate that received little attention outside Washington. O'Malley, who has dismissed Perry's visit as a publicity stunt, told a group of Democrats this month that he "kicked his [expletive]" in that debate.
And on the day Perry arrived, The Washington Post published an op-ed piece by O'Malley in which he laid out many of the same arguments he later made on CNN.
The unemployment rate in Texas is six-tenths of a percent lower than that of Maryland, but O'Malley has noted that Maryland has the highest median income in the nation. Texas is ranked 22nd.
Perry's visit put state Republicans in the awkward position of supporting his criticism of O'Malley but opposing his attempt to draw jobs out of state. Several GOP leaders, including state party chairwoman Diana Waterman, met with him on Wednesday.
"Instead of following Governor Perry to Texas, business owners should stay and fight with their vote," state GOP leaders said in a joint statement after the meeting. "We can put Maryland back on track if we elect a Republican governor next year."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.