The sharpest criticism came from Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, who excoriated Perry’s 2007 decision requiring vaccinations for sixth-grade girls against a cervical cancer-causing virus. The Minnesota congresswoman, referencing her three daughters, showed the passion that fueled her summertime surge in the polls but was absent in the last debate.
“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong,” she said. “That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest.”
Santorum piled on. Perry may have admitting that he made a “mistake’’ in how he executed the program but he was still defending its merits, he said.
“This is big government run amok,” Santorum said. “It is bad policy, and it should not have been done.”
While Santorum and Bachmann savaged Perry's credentials as a social conservative, Ron Paul questioned his legitimacy as a fiscal hawk. The Texas congressman, who has delighted in tangling with Perry in consecutive debates, blasted the governor’s record on spending and taxes. That’s sensitive terrain for Perry, who has made his job-creation record in Texas the centerpiece of his campaign.
“I'm a taxpayer there -- my taxes have gone up,” Paul quipped. So has the state's debt, he added. And in one of the debate’s more memorable lines, he slyly added, “I don't want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something.”
After Monday’s debate in Tampa on Monday and last week’s showdown at the Reagan Presidential Library, the distinctions between the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have come into sharp focus. Perry is the candidate who wants to “make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.’’ Romney is the candidate for people who “think the country needs a turnaround.’’
Perry played the passionate ideological warrior. President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program “created zero jobs.’’ The Texas governor doubled down on his characterization of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as “treasonous,’’ adding, “I think that is a very clear statement of fact.’’
Romney, by contrast, played the cool corporate executive, appealing to an audience outside the debate hall by raising questions about Perry’s electability. Perry’s use of the term “Ponzi scheme’’ to describe Social Security “over the top and unnecessary and I think frightful to people,” he said.
Pawlenty’s endorsement of Romney on Monday signaled how nervous Perry makes the Republican establishment. And even anti-establishment Republicans like Mike Huckabee are raising questions about his viability in a general election.
“Rick likes to come across as the straight-shootin,’ blunt talking guy and that works very well in Texas and it will work very well in what I call the hardcore center of the Republican primary,’’ Huckabee told conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. “But when you have to branch out and get to those younger voters and general election voters, I’m not sure how it's going to play out.”