TAMPA, Fla. — In his second debate as a presidential candidate, Rick Perry found himself on the receiving end of a steady volley of attacks from his Republican rivals over his position on Social Security, his controversial executive order mandating an STD vaccine, his economic record in Texas and his stance on illegal immigration.
From his chief rival Mitt Romney to Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann to outsiders Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, Perry was subjected to an all-out ambush, a fitting reception for a candidate who has shot to the top of the polls in recent weeks.
Romney dismissed Perry’s success as a job creator in Texas, suggesting that it had more to do with luck than skillful governing.
“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player,” Romney said.
Bachmann accused him of endangering the lives of “innocent little 12-year-old girls” by issuing an executive order — later overturned by the Texas legislature — requiring young women to receive inoculations against a virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
“I’m offended for all the little girls and parents who didn’t have a choice,” Bachmann said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum added, “This is big government run amok. It is bad policy, and it should not have been done.”
And several of the candidates, took on Perry for signing a bill that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in Texas and for saying that it is unrealistic to build a fence along the country’s entire southern border with Mexico.
“Of course we build a fence, and of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who have come here illegally,” Romney said.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman went even further: “For Rick to say that you can’t secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment.”
Nevertheless, Perry was mostly able to withstand the broadsides from his fellow Republicans at the debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. Many of the Texas governor’s answers drew applause from the audience, which included Tea Party activists from around the country who offered questions for the candidates.
Romney, who has been trailing Perry in most national polls since the Texan entered the race about a month ago, did not wait long to go after his biggest rival. But some of Romney’s attacks garnered only a tepid response — and, at times, even boos — from the tea party crowd.
Ever since last week’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, both campaigns have been at each other’s throats over the issue of Social Security. The Romney campaign spent the better part of the last week pouncing on Perry for calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” and tonight the former Massachusetts governor accused Perry of fear-mongering.
“The term ‘Ponzi scheme’ I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people,” Romney said, adding later: “The real question is does Gov. Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?”
Perry shot back: “If what you’re trying to say is that back in the ’30s and the ’40s that the federal government made all the right decisions, I disagree with you.”
The Texas governor assured that if he were elected he would protect Social Security for existing beneficiaries and those close to retirement age.
“The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something: Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those,” he said. “Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program’s going to be there for them when they arrive there.”
On the issue of job creation, Romney offered a backhanded complement on Perry’s record: “There has been great growth in Texas. Under Ann Richards, job growth was under 2.5 percent a year, under George Bush was 3 percent a year, under Rick Perry it’s been 1 percent a year,” he said.
With Perry and Romney stealing so much of the spotlight at last week’s debate, tonight’s gathering was expected to feature a more attack-minded Bachmann. Days before the debate her staff indicated that she would hit Perry on Social Security, but that specific attack never came.
Bachmann did, however, lash out at Perry for seeking to require HPV vaccinations in Texas.
“I’m a mom and I’m a mom of three children and to have them make 12-year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” Bachmann said. “That should never be done. That is a violation of a liberty interest.”
Defending his decision, Perry said “this was about trying to stop a cancer and giving the parental option to opt out of that.”
“And at the end of the day,” he said, “you may criticize me about the way I went about it, but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life and that’s what this was about.”
But Bachmann didn’t stop there, questioning whether Perry issued the executive order in order to receive a donation from pharmaceutical giant Merck.
“We cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because off this mandate. We can’t deny that,” she said. “What I’m saying is that it’s wrong for a drug company because the governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor and this is just flat out wrong. The question is is it about life or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company.”
“The company was Merck and it was a $ 5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry responded. “I raise about $30 million and if you’re saying that I can be bought for $ 5,000, I’m offended.”
“I’m offended for all the little girls and the parents who didn’t have a choice,” Bachmann retorted.
The debate, which was the second in a string of three such gatherings in a period of three weeks for the Republican candidates, also featured exchanges on the proper role of the Federal Reserve, health care reform and America’s military presence in Afghanistan. The third face-off will take place next week and it will also be in Florida, a state that will be crucial to picking the Republican nominee and the next president.
When the candidates weren’t attacking each other, they aimed their fire at President Obama.
During the exchange on Social Security, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attempted to shift the focus to the current occupant of the White House.
“I’m not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day,” he said.
And the incumbent president who is likely to face one of the eight candidates on the stage tonight appeared to be playing the role of critic-in-chief from afar.
“Final tally: five double-downs, one backtrack,” the president tweeted after the debate.