By Charles Babington
TAMPA, Fla. —
Attacked from all sides by fellow Republicans, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a crackling presidential campaign debate Monday night. He fended off assaults on his record creating jobs and requiring the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.
Across a fractious two-hour debate before a boisterous tea party crowd, the front-runner in opinion polls gave little ground and frequently jabbed back, particularly at his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But the criticism of Perry kept coming — from Romney on Social Security, from Texas Rep. Ron Paul saying the governor had raised taxes, from Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum assailing his executive order to require Texas schoolgirls to get an STD vaccine and more.
Perry bristled only once, when Bachmann seemed to suggest a connection between his executive order on the vaccinations and campaign contributions he received in Texas. “I’m offended,” he said, if she had questioned his integrity.
Monday night’s faceoff marked the first time in a season of debates that internal Republican differences dominated rather than a common eagerness to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Social Security was a key issue.
“A program that’s been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we’re not going to take that away,” Perry said in the debate’s opening moments as Romney pressed him on his earlier statements questioning the constitutionality of Social Security and calling it a Ponzi scheme.
The Texas governor counter-attacked quickly, accusing Romney of “trying to scare seniors” with his own comments on a program that tens of millions of Americans — including millions in the debate state of Florida alone — rely on for part or all of their retirement income.
The debate was sponsored by tea party groups — the conservative voters who propelled the GOP to victory in the 2010 congressional elections, and by CNN.
In the debate’s opening moments, Perry and Bachmann courted the support of tea party activists. Bachmann said she had “brought the voice of the tea party to the United States Congress as a founder of the tea party caucus.”
Perry said he was glad to be at the debate with the Tea Party Express. — AP