The Republican Party has produced as front-runners for the presidential nomination two men three years apart in age, but who otherwise are about as different as possible in style, substance, biography and their appeals to voters.

One was born into a privileged family in a tony Michigan suburb; the other, onto a flat expanse of West Texas dirt with no indoor plumbing. One spent his youth tooling around his father’s car factory; the other, selling Bibles door-to-door so he could afford to buy a car. One excelled at Harvard University, simultaneously earning law and business degrees and swiftly climbing the corporate ladder; the other, his hope of becoming a veterinarian dashed when he flunked organic chemistry at Texas A&M University, joined the Air Force.

“They come from different worlds,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Mitt Romney in his 2008 race but is neutral this time. “You can see the playbook pretty clearly here: It’s populist against patrician; it’s rural Texas steel against unflappable Romney coolness; conservative versus center-right establishment; Texas strength versus Romney’s imperturbability; (Rick) Perry’s simplicity versus Romney’s flexibility.”

Romney and Perry both say their unique life experiences have prepared them for the presidency. Romney is campaigning as a steady, capable grown-up who can fix anything that needs fixing; Perry, as a passionate, principled leader who can channel the ire of a frustrated electorate.

Romney represents both the GOP’s upper-crust establishment and the state, Massachusetts, that for so long has been the party’s bogeyman. Perry represents the angry grassroots that are giving the party new energy and he personifies the state, Texas, that for a generation has been the GOP’s soul.

Just as Obama’s 2008 victory over Hillary Clinton helped define the modern Democratic Party, Republicans, in choosing between Romney, Perry or perhaps someone else, will make a statement about the GOP’s identity.

Romney, a former consultant who founded a successful private equity firm, seems at his best discussing the intricacies of how businesses grow. When he announced his economic plan, Romney began by saying, “This is going to be a conversation,” then spoke extemporaneously for a half-hour with just a page of hand-scribbled notes.

It’s relating to people where Perry seems most at ease. He routinely puts down elites. In last week’s debate, Romney dismissed Perry’s jobs record as luck, saying that governing a state with plentiful oil resources was akin to being dealt a poker hand of four aces. Perry shot back on the stump in Iowa:

“I grew up in a house that didn’t have running water until I was about 5 years old. My mom and dad were both tenant farmers. For sure, I was not born with four aces in my hand.”

Romney and Perry’s uneasy relationship dates to 2006, when Romney, then the Republican Governors Association chairman, hired Castellanos to work for the RGA. Perry viewed that as an affront, since Castellanos was also working for an independent who was trying to unseat Perry that year.

Republicans close to Romney and Perry said reports of their animosity are overstated and that in reality they never had much of a relationship at all.

On the campaign trail now, Both men tell stories about their fathers. One is a tale of ambition and achievement; the other, of honor and minimalism.

Romney’s dad, George, born to American parents in Mexico, grew up poor, hopscotching the American West, and eventually learned carpentry.

“My dad never had the time or money to put together a college degree, but the fact that he was a lath-and-plaster carpenter didn’t keep him in America from becoming head of a big car company — they made Ramblers — and then also becoming governor,” Romney said at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, not mentioning that his father fell short of his ultimate ambition, to be president.

The story Perry tells of his father, Joseph Ray, is markedly different. “He flew 35 missions over Nazi Hell Germany in 1944 and ’45,” Perry told a veterans group. “He helped liberate millions from tyranny. When he came home, he didn’t seek acclaim or credit. He just wanted to live in peace and freedom — just farm a little corner of land in Paint Creek, Texas.”

Growing up, Perry says, the only world he knew was Paint Creek. At a piano recital when he was 8, Perry met Anita Thigpen, who, 24 years later, would become his wife.

At Texas A&M, he joined the Corps of Cadets. He graduated with a degree in animal science. To this day, he kneels to pet dogs when he sees them.

Perry joined the Air Force, piloting transport aircraft from 1972 to 1977, although he never was called into battle.

He’s said that at 27, when he returned home to work the family cotton farm, he was “lost, spiritually and emotionally.” Pondering his purpose, he found God.

And, in 1984, he launched his political career. He won 10 straight elections: state legislator, agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and, when Bush became president, governor.

Romney doesn’t talk about flying cargo planes — he didn’t serve in the military — or going from rags to riches. He’s always had the latter.

The biography Romney shares with voters is one of bullet points on what by any measure is an impressive sum:

Married his high school sweetheart, Ann, at age 22. Graduated from Brigham Young University and gave a commencement address to his class. Completed law and business degrees in four years at Harvard.

Founded Bain Capital. Helped invest in or buy companies such as Staples, the office supplies retailer. Turned around the struggling 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Was elected governor of Massachusetts. Ran for president.

“I don’t have all the answers to all the problems that exist in America and around the world,” Romney often says. “But I know how to find the answers, and I also know how to lead.”

It is perhaps in the area of personal style that the two are most different.

Consider how they approached the rite of eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair last month. When a fair vendor handed Romney a vegetarian corn dog, he politely took it, turned his back to the cameras following him and took a delicate bite from the side.

Perry, meanwhile, took a big bite of his corn dog, top first.

“I thought, it kind of has an odd taste. He said, ‘It’s a vegetarian one. How do you like it, sir?’” Perry recalled a few days later in South Carolina.

Stirring his audience of apparent meat-lovers, he continued his riff. “Let’s see,” he said, “I think (I ate) boiled egg on a stick and finished up with pork chop on a stick. So I got my protein that day!”