By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Rick Perry ramped up his criticism of presidential rival Mitt Romney on Friday, describing the health plan Romney backed in Massachusetts as socialized medicine and a miserable failure.
Perry, the Texas governor who leads opinion polls for the 2012 Republican race, attacked the healthcare law Romney signed as Massachusetts governor for forcing residents to get health insurance or pay a penalty.
"You know the model for socialized medicine has been tried before and it didn't work," Perry said during a speech at the Iowa Credit Union League's annual meeting. "It failed miserably whether it was in Western Europe or in Massachusetts."
Romney has been a target of frequent criticism for backing the Massachusetts plan, which conservatives see as a precursor to President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
Romney has defended the Massachusetts law, while attacking Obama's federal version. He has said he wants to repeal the law Obama signed last year.
"We invite Governor Perry to come to Massachusetts so that he can see for himself that people buy private health insurance in a free market system. It is reckless and irresponsible to suggest otherwise," Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said."
On the second day of a trip to Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest in the Republican race, Perry also ridiculed the jobs plan being pushed in Congress by Obama.
"We've tried for 2 1/2 years ... to stimulate the economy and you've got to ask yourself: 'How'd that work for us?'" Perry said. "Not very well."
Perry, a staunch social and religious conservative, has come under attack from his rivals for some of his policy stances in Texas and for his views on the Social Security government retirement program, which he has called a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."
Asked about the criticism, Perry said it was "political cowardice at its greatest."
In a Florida debate on Monday, Perry said he wanted to protect Social Security benefits for retirees and those nearing retirement, but would like to start an honest conversation about how to make the system financially sustainable.