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Republicans jab at Perry in ‘tea party’ debate

In backhanded recognition of his front-runner status, Texas Gov. Rick Perry came under sharp criticism from his Republican presidential rivals in a “tea party” debate Monday night for promoting tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and ordering young girls to be inoculated against a sexually transmitted disease.

The governor, who leads by double-digit margins in early polls, was on the defensive for much of the evening. But he shrugged off most of the attacks with folksy retorts and a bemused look, and he stuck to his guns on the issue that has trailed him since his first national debate appearance last week: Social Security.

Perry, who has described the federal retirement program as “a Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie” to younger Americans, tried to move beyond that argument. He offered a “slam-dunk” guarantee to current beneficiaries and those “moving towards” retirement that he wouldn’t favor changing the program for them. But he also vowed to transform Social Security, possibly by returning portions of the program to the states.

That prompted a sharp exchange with Mitt Romney, the former front-runner, after Perry said he wanted to have “a conversation” with voters about the issue.

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“We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president,” interjected Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who described Perry’s words as “frightful to many people.”

The two-hour forum — the most contentious thus far in the 2012 campaign — marked a revival of sorts for Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy has suffered as Perry’s has taken off over the past month. The two are competing for many of the same conservative votes, but last night the Minnesota congresswoman appeared to have won the hearts of many in the crowd of tea party activists.

She drew cheers for a rally-style attack on “Obamacare” — the president’s federal healthcare overhaul — and for her attack on Perry’s controversial decision to order vaccinations in Texas against the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

Perry said that his 2007 executive order had been a mistake. But he was unable to resist the urge to defend his decision.

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Bachmann called Perry’s actions “flat-out wrong” and “a violation of a liberty interest,” and went on to liken his executive order to “government dictates” like those in the Obama healthcare law.

Bachmann also suggested that Perry’s order was made in response to a campaign donation from Merck, the maker of the vaccine Gardasil, which had hired Perry’s former chief of staff as its lobbyist in Austin, the state capital.

“It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” responded Perry. “I raise about $30 million, and if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

Bachmann shot back, to cheers from the invited audience at the Florida State Fairgrounds, that she was “offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice.”

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Perry drew scattered boos when he defended his decision to sign a law providing in-state tuition at public colleges in Texas to children of illegal immigrants.

“The bottom line is, it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way,” said Perry. “I’m proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, ‘You go be on the government dole.’ ”

That gave Bachmann another opening, and she seized it. “The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way,” she said, to another boisterous audience response.

The congresswoman, who founded the House Tea Party Caucus, said afterward that the debate, cosponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, “was like being at home.”

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Texas Rep. Ron Paul also took shots at his home state governor. He said that taxes in the state have doubled since Perry took office 11 years ago and that 170,000 of the jobs Texas added were government jobs.

But, joked the Houston congressman, “I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. repeated his call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and Perry, an Air Force veteran who saluted the audience as he walked onstage, offered a partial endorsement. Perry said he agreed that U.S. troops should come home as soon as possible but advocated a residual military commitment to Afghanistan and continued U.S. assistance to help rebuild that country’s infrastructure.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum criticized Perry on immigration and took an oblique shot at the Texan’s party switch in 1989 from Democratic to Republican.

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Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and one of the few candidates who didn’t criticize the front-runner, remarked that he was “not particularly worried about Gov. Perry and Gov. Romney frightening the American people” about Social Security “when President Obama scares them every single day.”

Businessman Herman Cain repeatedly touted his own economic plan. And in response to a question about what he would bring to the White House if elected, he said, “A sense of humor … because America’s too uptight.”

The debate’s opening felt like a mix between a reality show and a sporting event. Moderator Wolf Blitzer delivered several minutes of introductory remarks above a throbbing bass line, followed by another departure: the singing of the national anthem.

Among the several hundred in the audience were former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney on Monday, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced his support for Perry.

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The event was also something of a formal coming-out party for the tea party movement in the 2012 campaign, a tone set before the telecast began.

“We are here because we, the people, are going to choose the next Republican nominee for president, not the Republican Party,” said Amy Kremer, co-chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, to enthusiastic applause.

paul.west@latimes.com


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