Frontrunner Perry Faces Fire at Tea Party Debate

On a day in which a CNN poll reaffirmed his status as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry spent much of Monday evening fending off attacks by his seven GOP rivals at a Tampa, Fla., debate cosponsored by Tea Party Express and the cable network.

The fireworks began almost immediately, with debate moderator Wolf Blitzer revisiting Perry’s previous characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and suggestion that the nearly sacrosanct federal entitlement program is “unconstitutional.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was leading the Republican field until Perry recently joined the fray, chided the Texas governor, “The term ‘Ponzi scheme’ scares seniors.” Perry retorted that Romney had himself described as “criminal” the manner in which Social Security currently is financed.

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The nation’s anemic job creation provided an opening for Republic presidential contenders to take shots at President Obama, while offering their own prescriptions for putting more than 14 million jobless Americans back to work.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called for a flatter tax code, regulatory reform, and reduction of America’s “heroin-like addiction to foreign oil.” Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, proposed his "999 Plan," which includes a flat 9 percent business tax, 9 percent personal income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. Perry, who noted that his state “has led the nation in job creation,” suggested “federal tort reform."

The health care issue consumed roughly a quarter of the debate, with the eight Republicans unanimously agreeing that the Obama health care law – which they derisively referred as “Obamacare” – should be repealed.

Perry actually found himself facing almost as much fire as the Democratic president after Blitzer asked him about his 2007 executive order requiring that every 12-year-old girl in Texas be vaccinated with a drug, Gadasil, that is advertised to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer.

Perry told the debate moderator that his order was “a mistake,” but what was driving him, he said, “was to work to save lives.”

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for whom Monday’s debate was widely considered a make-or-break moment for her sputtering campaign, was unsatisfied with Perry’s explanation.

It was “just flat out wrong” to order mass injections of the vaccine, she said. “Little girls who have a reaction to this drug do not get a do-over.” She also noted that Perry received a campaign contribution from Merck, the company that produces the vaccine, asking, “Was this about life or was it about millions of dollars for this drug company?”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum chimed in, “There is no government purpose served in having little girls inoculated” without the state expressly receiving parental consent. “This is big government run amok,” he added.

Perry clearly stood apart from his Republican rivals on the issue of immigration. He defended his state’s policy of providing in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants that have resided in Texas three years or more. “I am proud,” he said, “to have those individuals becoming contributing parts of our citizenship.”

Santorum, Bachmann and Romney each took exception. “We build a fence,” said Romney. “We do not give them in-state tuition.” Otherwise, he said, the United States becomes even more of a magnet for illegal immigration.

Most of the pundits offering post-debate analysis on the big three cable networks agreed that last night’s matchup produced no clear-cut winner or loser. That would appear to work to the advantage of Perry, the favorite of 30 percent of Republicans to be the party’s standard-bearer next year, according to CNN, and Romney, the choice of 18 percent of Republicans.

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