The GOP presidential field united to attack Texas Gov. Rick Perry at Monday night's debate, showing they view him as their biggest competition for the Republican nomination.
During the debate, held in Tampa, Fla., and sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, the contenders sought to take the Texas governor down a peg. Perry fought back hard, but stuttered and stumbled at times and was unable to deflect every charge thrown at him.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a much stronger debate performance, going on the attack several times after being criticized for fading into the background at last Wednesday's debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
But it was Perry and Romney, who is now second in polls, who had the most fiery exchanges of the night.
Within the first 30 minutes of the debate, Perry and Romney got into a fight over Perry’s earlier comments that Social Security was an unconstitutional “Ponzi scheme.”
Perry promised current Social Security recipients and those nearing retirement that they were "slam-dunk guaranteed" to receive benefits. He also defended his earlier remarks. "It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people before me," he said.
"The term Ponzi scheme is unnecessary and over the top and frightening to some people," Romney shot back.
In a snappy back-and-forth, Perry said Romney had called Social Security "criminal," which Romney then said was a mischaracterization of what he said.
The issue was particularly significant because the debate's was held in Florida, which has a high percentage of elderly Americans who rely on Social Security.
Romney also avoided avoided a potentially awkward moment when he was asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer if he had any compliment to pay Perry.
He gave the Texas governor a back-handed one, praising Texas's job growth before saying that "if you're dealt four aces, that doesn't necessarily make you a great poker player," and listing four advantages he believes Perry inherited in Texas: oil, no income taxes, a Republican legislature and low regulation.
Perry's response: "You were doin' pretty good until you got talking poker."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul also got into the exchange, scoring some points when he accused Perry of raising taxes in their home state. "I'm a tax payer there — my taxes have gone up. Our taxes have doubled since he's been in office, our spending has gone up double, our debt has gone up nearly up triple," he said. "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."
The attacks didn't stop there. Later in the debate, Perry was attacked by Romney on immigration and by Bachmann for an executive order he made to require girls to get inoculated against the HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.
Bachmann passed up an early opportunity to hit Perry on the entitlement program and for calling Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke treasonous, but hit him hard on the executive order regarding HPV, which was a controversial decision in Texas at the time.
After Perry apologized for the way he went about requiring teenage girls in Texas to get the HPV vaccine, she attacked him for supporting the plan at all.
"To have innocent little 12-year old girls be forced to have to have a government injection through the force of an executive order is flat-out wrong. That should never be done. That’s a violation of the liberty interest," she said with an edge in her voice. "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."
She then pointed out that Perry's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for the drug company that produced the vaccine, and insinuated that he pushed the bill because of that relationship.
Perry shot back, pointing out that he raises millions of dollars and the company had given him just $5,000. "If you’re saying I could be bought for $5,000 I’m offended," he said.
Bachmann's retort: "I’m offended for all the little girls and parents that didn’t have a choice."
Tea Party conservatives who overall have warmed to Perry have serious concerns about that executive order, and the exchange showed that: Bachmann's final retort received the loudest applause of the night.
She has faded in the polls since Perry entered the race — he has eaten into her Tea Party base of support, and she came into this debate needing to show she can hold hold her own against him, especially in front of a friendly audience.
Bachmann later hit Romney for supporting a health insurance overhaul that included a mandate that individuals buy health insurance.
"No state has the constitutional right to force a person as a condition of citizenship to buy a product or service against their will," she said. "It's unconstitutional, whether it's the state government or whether it’s the national government."
Other candidates criticized Perry for some of his more centrist stances on immigration, including support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and opposing the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Romney led the charge. “Of course we build a fence, and of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who’ve come here illegally. That only attracts people to come here and take advantage of America’s great beneficence,” he said. “And with regards to giving driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally, again that creates a patina of legal status.”
Perry responded by pointing out he had the most experience on the issue, and framed his decisions as issues that should be left to the individual states.
“There’s not anybody on this stage who’s had to deal with the idea of border security more than I have,” he said. “The idea that you’re going to build a wall from Brownsville to El Paso, and go left and left for another 800 miles to Tijuana is just not reality. What you have to have is boots on the ground.”
Paul received some of the only boos of the evening, when he booed by the Tea Party-heavy crowd for criticizing American foreign policy and calling for less interventionism abroad.
Businessman Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) also participated in the debate. Cain and Santorum received warm applause from the Tea Party audience at times, while the centrist Huntsman was treated coolly.
Gingrich delivered a strong performance, but the other candidates ignored him. It is unlikely his campaign will gain much traction from the debate.