Last week Gov. Rick Perry faced attacks from the left during the debate among Republican candidates for president, with Mitt Romney repeatedly questioning his commitment to Social Security. On Monday night, the harshest hits came from the right.
And they didn’t only come from Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. During the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Fla., both U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, struggling to stay relevant, unleashed on the Texas governor, attacking him for his failed 2007 executive order mandating the HPV vaccine for young girls and his support for offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, among other issues. As expected, fellow Texan U.S. Rep Ron Paul of Surfside took his shots at Perry, too — on immigration, taxes and other actions as governor.
In the “spin room” after the event, Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the front-running Texas governor withstood the onslaught well.
“He was under attacks by all the candidates, and he stood his ground. He talked about issues that mattered to Americans,” Miner said. “He talked about his record on jobs and the economy, about Social Security. Like a couple of nights ago, he’s going to leave tonight stronger than he came in.”
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom had a different take. He said Perry “came into this debate with a Social Security problem, and he came out with a conservative problem.”
After Perry and Romney sparred over Social Security, the first sustained attack on Perry touched on a familiar controversy for the Texas governor: his controversial 2007 executive order requiring that schools girls get vaccinated against HPV, the principal cause of cervical cancer.
Bachmann was relentless.
Noting that she was a mother of three kids, Bachmann said it was “flat out wrong” to require that “innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order.”
Perry was given a chance to respond, and he noted that the executive order contained an “opt-out” provision allowing parents to refuse the vaccine. The order was ultimately overturned by the Legislature. Bachmann wouldn’t let go, though. She butted back in, asking CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the forum's moderator, “Can I add to that?”
He let her, and she pounced, tying the executive order to Perry’s former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, and the drug company Merck, maker of the Gardasil vaccine, for which Toomey lobbied in Texas.
“The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong,” she said.
Perry acknowledged he got a $5,000 donation from Merck but said that didn’t sway him. Delivering a soundbite that is likely to get some repeat air time, Perry said: “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
Perry would obviously say that he can’t be bought for any amount of money, but by putting an amount on it and noting how much he raises, the governor opened himself to the suggestion that bigger donations might influence him.
Bachmann wasn’t the only one piling on the governor. Santorum chimed in, too, saying, “There is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government. This is big government run amok.”
Perry was allowed to answer again, and he moved to safer ground: He said the HPV order was in line with his “pro-life” posture, noting his support for abortion curbs in Texas.
The governor also took flak on the immigration issue, particularly the 2001 legislation he signed giving in-state college tuition to certain illegal immigrants. Perry didn’t back away from his support of the bill, saying it “doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is,” that it is better to turn Texas residents whomever they are into productive members of society rather than having them end up on the public dole.
The conservative crowd gave its audible disapproval, prompting Blitzer to say, “You heard some boos there.” It was a far cry from the cheers Perry received last week when he solemnly embraced his role in presiding over so many executions in Texas.
Again, Bachmann pounced: “I think the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws.”
One of the most heated exchanges came early on over Social Security, when Perry and Romney sparred about who was scaring seniors the most. Perry earned cheers from the crowd by saying the former Massachusetts governor had suggested in his book that the financing of Social Security would be “criminal” if it were a private business.
Romney said Perry was misquoting him, and that he only meant that misusing the Social Security trust fund would be criminal.
It was clear Perry’s rivals are anxious to knock him out of the front-runner status he so quickly achieved. And while Romney is Perry’s most serious challenger, and the likely beneficiary of any declines the Texas governor might experience, the other candidates were more than happy to help him out Monday night.