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Rick Perry Takes Tea Party Debate Licking, Keeps Ticking; Race Seems Stable

Republican presidential candidates at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, Tampa, Fla., Sept. 12, 2011.
Republican presidential candidates at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, Tampa, Fla., Sept. 12, 2011.

Stop Rick Perry.

That was the goal of the other Republican presidential candidates who came to the CNN/Tea Party Express debate Monday evening, to make GOP voters see the Texas governor and front-runner for their party's presidential nomination as less of a shiny new object and more as damaged goods.

By the end of the two-hour debate in Tampa, Fla., his rivals may not have knocked him out of the lead but they gave any Republican voters with doubts about Perry plenty more to fuel their concerns.

From his hostility to Social Security to his mandating of HPV vaccinations of 12-year-old girls in Texas to how much credit he really deserves for his state's economic growth, Perry had to endure repeated thwacks to his 11-year record as governor.

And because it was a debate co-sponsored by a group whose members are among the most conservative Republicans, Perry even drew audience boos when the discussion turned to his support of in-state tuitions for young undocumented immigrants.

Still, his determination to appear unfazed and even-tempered amid all the incoming fire may have impressed some viewers trying to discern his temperament.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who lost his frontrunner status to Perry, continued to attack the Texan's opposition to Social Security, a line of assault Romney started at last week's debate.

ROMNEY: ... The term "Ponzi scheme" I think is over the top and unnecessary, and frightful to many people. But the real issue is that in writing his book Governor Perry pointed out that, in his view, that Social Security is unconstitutional, that this is not something the federal government ought to be involved in, that instead it should be given back to the states...

But Romney's criticism of Perry's Social Security stance was just a warm-up for attacks to come.

When the conversation turned to Perry's controversial executive order mandating the HPV vaccine be administered to adolescent girls in Texas to protect them from the cervical-cancer causing virus spread by sexual activity, Perry was battered by Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Family values voters are particularly hostile to the HPV vaccine which many argue sends young people the wrong message about premarital sex.

Bachmann and Santorum appeal to those voters, as does Perry on many other issues.

Indeed, Perry's official entry into the race in August on the same day that Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa drained away much of Bachmann's prior support from evangelicals and Tea Party activists.

The HPV discussion gave Bachmann, especially, a much-needed prybar to try to peel away some of those conservatives the GOP refers to as values voters away from Perry and back towards her candidacy.

Perry admitted his vaccine executive order was a mistake. But that wasn't enough to placate Bachmann who was a more aggressive presence than she was at last week's debate.

BACHMANN: I'm a mom, and I'm a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong. (Cheers, applause.) That should never be done. That's a violation of a liberty interest. That's — little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan. They don't get a do-over. The parents don't get a do-over.

But more than this, Bachmann made a point that others have also made, one that could be even more damning in the eyes of many voters than the mandate itself. She noted that the vaccine, Gardasil, was made by a company, Merck, who Perry's former chief of staff served as a lobbyist.

She suggested the existence of a quid pro quo, saying the pharmaceutical company had given Perry thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

To which Perry responded:

I raise about $30 million, and if you're saying that I can be bought for 5,000 (dollars), I'm offended. (Applause.)

To some wags, this response had the unintentional effect of making it sound like the Texas governor actually had a price at which he could be bought, something north of $5,000.

Perry then tried to fuzz up the issue by saying that he saw the vaccine as part of the seamless culture of life he's been trying to promote in Texas. It was a stretch. But matters were getting a little desperate at that point.

PERRY: Look, I think we've made decisions in Texas. We've put a $3 billion effort in to find the cure for cancer. There are a lot of different cancers out there. Texas, I think, day in and day out is a place that protects life. I have passed parental notification pieces of legislation. I've been the most pro-life governor in the state of Texas. And what we were all about was trying to save young people's lives in Texas. (Applause.)

Rep. Ron Paul got his licks in on Perry, too. During a part of the debate when Perry claims to have overseen significant growth of the Texas' economy were under heavy scrutiny, Paul said his own Texas tax bill had doubled under Perry.

And not just that. He got off one of the evening's best zingers.

Of the Texas economic miracle, he said:

So I would put a little damper on this, but I don't want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something. (Laughter, applause.)

But even though Paul is often viewed as one of the spiritual fathers of the Tea Party movement, he wasn't immune to being booed for his own unpopular views.

When he repeated a frequent Paul trope that the U.S. has invited terrorist attacks on itself as blowback to its actions overseas, some audience members lustily booed.

The stretch when Perry defended his record on immigration may have been one of the better moments of the evening for him.

True, he was booed by some audience members for being insufficiently tough on illegal immigrants by not wanting to build a fence and not taking a hard line against young illegal residents of Texas who seek in-state tuition rates at Texas' public universities. Still, he didn't waver.

PERRY: We were clearly sending a message to young people regardless of what the sound of their last name is that we believe in you, that if you want to live in the state of Texas and you want to pursue citizenship that we're going to allow you the opportunity to be contributing members in the state of Texas and not be a drag on our state.

For the Obama White House, this may have been one of the most ominous moments of the debate. While Perry's views on Social Security make him a dream candidate for President Obama to run against, the governor's less punitive approach to young illegal immigrants differs from much of the rest of his party.

Democrats have counted on the general Republican hard-heartedness towards young undocumented immigrants to increase the Democratic Party's appeal to Latino voters in 2012, helping to provide Obama the support he needs to win states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and re-election. Perry's position on this issue, at least, complicates that calculation.

Jon Huntsman, who has been mired in the low end of the polls, tried to make the point whenever he had the chance, that he was actually a truer conservative than Perry or Romney on immigration and mandates, respectively. He repeatedly referred to his experience as Utah's governor.

But he often came across more as gratuitously snarky than anything else. As when after Perry said, among other things, that he opposed a border fence, Huntsman said:

Well, first of all, let me — let me say for Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment.

It was an allusion to Perry's controversial comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that came across as ill-placed swaggering Texas macho when the governor said it and a cheap shot coming from Huntsman.

Nothing that happened during the debate appeared to shift the dynamics of the race which still appeared to be a two-person contest between Perry and Romney.

In other words, nothing happened to set either Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, or Herman Cain, the one-time pizza company chief executive, on the path to the GOP nomination.

But these debates are participated in by those with an actual chance to get the nomination and those who see no downside to the kind of free publicity that comes from being on the debate stage, the sort of exposure that can't hurt when it comes to selling books or speaking fees.

So as long as they continue to garner enough support in the polls to appear on the stage with Perry and Romney, Gingrich and Cain are also debate winners.

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