Richmond, Virginia (CNN) - Rick Perry's unapologetic conservative rhetoric about the role of government has raised questions about his viability in a general election.
But on Wednesday the Texas governor said the Republican Party should pick a presidential nominee who is as philosophically different from President Barack Obama as possible.
"We don't need to elect a nominee who is going to blur the lines between this administration and the Republican Party," Perry said during remarks at a fundraiser for the Republican Party of Virginia. "We need a nominee who draws a distinct and clear contrast. And I will tell you one thing, President Obama and I have a clear contrast."
The last GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, faced criticism by some conservatives after his 2008 loss for failing to draw a sharper contrast with Barack Obama and depressing Republican turnout on Election Day.
Perry boasted about his record of job creation in Texas and promised that the Republican base will be fired up if he becomes the party's standard-bearer in 2012.
And when asked by a reporter if he would offer a more distinct contrast with Obama than his chief GOP rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry said yes.
"There is not any doubt, when you look at the job creation record in Massachusetts when he was governor," Perry said, pausing to praise Romney's experience in the private sector. "Let's face it, Michael Dukakis created jobs at three times the rate annually than what Mitt did as governor."
In his speech, Perry pointed to Tuesday's GOP special election upset in New York's 9th Congressional District and said that President Obama's "tax and spend agenda is re-energizing Republicans."
"It is time for a change in this country," he said to a standing ovation from the more than 1,000 party activists who attended the luncheon. "When I talk about change, I am not talking about the rhetoric of change, I am talking about a record of change. And I've got that record."
Perry was introduced by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who worked closely with Perry at the Republican Governors Association before Perry stepped down from the chairmanship to run for president.
McDonnell took over the top spot at the RGA and has said he will not endorse a presidential candidate until this year's elections conclude in November, but it was clear he held Perry in high regard.
He said Perry has built Texas into the "envy of the nation" when it comes to job creation.
As the party faithful waited to enter the ballroom at the Richmond Convention Center, several attendees said they were excited to see the Republican frontrunner but admitted they still had questions about his record.
Geneva Young, a retiree from Mechanicsville, called herself a strong Perry supporter but said she was unaware until Monday night's CNN debate that he signed a bill in Texas granting in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.
"I am afraid that will hurt him among some conservatives," she said. "I hope it doesn't, but I think it will."
One self-described tea party activist, Aubrey Tatum from Amelia County, said Perry has a bad habit of "shooting his mouth off too quick."
"It's not that he isn't telling the truth, it's that he isn't exactly saying it the right way," she said.
That wasn't exactly the case after the speech, when Perry spoke to reporters and demonstrated a kind of message discipline that was lacking in the early days of his campaign.
After each question - about his general election chances, about his appeal to Hispanic voters, about federal disaster funding - Perry repeatedly pivoted back to the issues of jobs and spending.
He said the "job-killing, tax-raising, regulatory burdensome" Obama administration is definitively "on the ropes."
Chris Saxman, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who co-chaired McCain's campaign in the state in 2008, said Perry appears to be learning from some of his early mis-steps, like his threatening talk about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
"His initial gaffes have not been repeated which I think shows an extraordinary ability to learn from his mistakes," Saxman said. "In a campaign that's not easy to do when you are the alpha male on the campaign."