The political battle for the Republican presidential nomination is all about who can get the U.S. economy back on track and restart the once-great American jobs machine.
It is also about who stands the best chance of beating President Barack Obama, though that qualification will be largely shaped by who has the strongest credentials to pull the Obama economy out of its long, deep recession.
As things stand now, according to most surveys, the GOP's pre-primary contest is essentially between three candidates: former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
The debate over who has the best economic skills is between Romney, the presumed front-runner, and Perry, the late entry in the primary race, who has zoomed near the front of the pack by virtue of his state's stellar record on job creation.
Rep. Bachmann doesn't really have a record on job creation because she has not been a governor or run a business. As a three-term House member, economic policymaking has not been her strong suit.
She valiantly fought and correctly voted against Obama's failed $800 billion spending stimulus bill. But it was reported last week that she repeatedly lobbied federal agencies to obtain some of that money for her congressional district, using what critics said were "traditional Keynesian economic rationales" to justify her requests.
In the 2009 House debate over Obama's big spending plan, which created relatively few jobs but drove the budget deficit to new highs, Bachmann attacked the plan as "fantasy economics" that would hurt new job creation.
But in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace, she defended her aggressive efforts to obtain some of that money for her district by saying, "After the stimulus was passed and the money was there, why should my constituents or anyone else be disadvantaged?"
Romney and Perry come to the issues of the economy and jobs from different directions. Romney has spent most of his career in the business sector as a venture capital investor with a major investment firm, Bain Capital, that sought out promising start-up businesses, providing them with capital to expand, build market share and, as they grew, put more people to work.
Staples, one of Romney's early successes, was then a one-store office supply company that eventually grew into 2,000 stores and now employs more than 90,000 people.
Romney worked for Bain between 1984 and 1999, when he left to run the 2002 Olympics, turning its then-bankrupt, mismanaged operation into a financial success story. Not all of the small businesses that he and Bain invested in were successful, but many were and became top employers as well.
When Romney was governor between 2003 and 2007, he cut taxes and spending, and by the time he left office to run for president, the state's unemployment rate had fallen to a low 4.5 percent.
Perry has spent a great deal more of his career in politics, but in his three terms as governor of Texas, he has run up a job-creating record in recent years that is the envy of many states.
While dozens of states have lost jobs, Texas has been gaining them, in part due to Perry's skillful efforts to draw businesses into a major state economy with low taxes and fewer regulations.
Campaigning in Iowa this week, Perry boasted that since 2009, 37 percent of all the new jobs created in the United States were in Texas. Taking umbrage at Romney's campaign pitch that he is the only candidate with "private sector experience," Perry says that he, too, has that experience, after 13 years in the Air Force, when he ran his family's cotton farm.
"You know, I wasn't on Wall Street. I wasn't working for Bain Capital. But the principles of the free market, they work whether you're in a farm field in Iowa or whether you're on Wall Street," he told Iowa voters.
His critics say Texas' 8.2 percent unemployment rate, while lower than the 9.1 percent national average, isn't anything to write home about. Massachusetts' jobless rate was 7.6 percent in June.
Both Romney and Perry will be unveiling their own proposals in the fall to boost economic growth and new jobs. It's expected that their plans will call for lower taxes on businesses, investment capital and family incomes, and slowing the growth in federal spending.
Whatever their differences, both plans will be in sharp contrast to the plan that Obama is expected to announce after Labor Day. It will contain the same warmed-over proposals he has been talking about for months: more central planning, more public works spending and still more tax credits for businesses who hire workers.
He still doesn't understand that employers aren't going to expand their payrolls until they see more business coming through the door, and that's not going to happen until government lifts its job-killing tax burdens on an overtaxed, over-regulated, jobless economy.
That's the kind of free market economic policy Romney and Perry will be pushing in their bid for the nomination, and that's what Obama unalterably opposes no matter how bad the economy gets.