(Updates with comment from Bachmann in 15th paragraph.)
Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Rick Perry faced a pincer-like attack on his credentials as a fiscal and social conservative, forcing him to defend his positions on Social Security, job-creation, immigration and vaccinations in a Republican presidential debate last night.
His rivals alternated in targeting Perry, the leader in national polling of the party’s presidential contenders, as they sought to improve their standing in the race. Led by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Perry’s rivals accused him on the one hand of advocating an end to Social Security and on the other of supporting “big government” by allowing himself to be influenced by a campaign donor to mandate that young girls in Texas be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease.
Perry ceded little ground as he defended his record and views. More than any previous debates in the Republican race, including one held six days ago, the spirited exchanges highlighted the campaign’s increasingly combative tone.
Romney kicked off the debate by taking aim at Perry’s characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi Scheme” and pressing him to say whether he stood by the suggestion he made in a book published in November 2010 that the program was unconstitutional.
Perry said he wouldn’t change the program for current retirees or those soon to become eligible. He also accused Romney of “trying to scare seniors” with his criticism, rather than having “a legitimate conversation with Americans about how to fix that program.”
Romney fired back, “The term Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors.”
In surging to the top in national polls of Republican- leaning voters since entering the race a month ago, Perry displaced Romney as the contest’s frontrunner. He also halted momentum for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota that had culminated in her winning the Iowa Republican straw poll on Aug. 13.
Fighting to stop her slide in the polls since then, Bachmann stuck an aggressive stance in last night’s debate, sometimes speaking out of turn to get a chance to go on the attack, usually against Perry.
She zeroed in on a 2007 executive order he issued in Texas requiring that pre-teen girls get vaccinations against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus -- commonly known as HPV -- that causes cervical cancer.
Bachmann suggested that Perry signed the order to reward Merck & Co., the company that makes the vaccine known as Gardasil, which had contributed to his campaign and employed a former top aide of Perry’s as its chief lobbyist.
“The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars, and potentially billions, for a drug company?” Bachmann asked.
Perry responded by saying that Merck had donated $5,000 to his gubernatorial campaign -- an amount dwarfed by the millions of dollars he has raised. “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said.
Merck contributed $16,000 to Perry between 2004 and 2007, according to campaign finance disclosures.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania called Perry’s vaccine decision “big government run amok. It is bad policy, and it should not have been done,” he said.
Bachmann continued her attack after the debate, saying on NBC’s “Today” program this morning “it’s very clear that crony capitalism could have” prompted Perry to push for the vaccination program.
Polling indicates the race is becoming a two-way contest between Romney and Perry. In a CNN/ORC International poll released yesterday, Perry led in the Republican field with support from 30 percent of Americans surveyed, followed by Romney with 18 percent. Bachmann received 4 percent, placing seventh.
Romney sought during the debate to undercut Perry’s campaign emphasis on his job-creation record in Texas by refusing to give him credit for the state’s economic record during his almost 12 years as governor. Romney attributed Texas’s job growth to low taxes and regulation, a favorable labor climate and its abundance of oil.
“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” Romney said, to jeers from some in the debate audience. “If you think that the country is like Texas -- going swimmingly well -- then somebody who’s done that is just terrific. If you think the country needs a turnaround, that’s what I do.”
Texas Representative Ron Paul said taxes, spending and borrowing had all risen on Perry’s watch. He quipped, “I don’t want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something.”
Perry contrasted his record with Obama’s, saying, “While the current resident of the White House is overseeing the loss of 2.5 million jobs, Texas during my period of governor has created over a million jobs. And we did that during some pretty tough economic period.”
On immigration policy, Perry was called upon to defend a state law he signed that allows illegal immigrants who graduate from a Texas high school to get in-state tuition rates at state universities. Santorum said the measure may have been Perry’s “attempt to attract Latino voters.”
Perry said the law represents the country’s core principles. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is -- that is the American way,” he said.
Bachmann responded, “The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws and are here in the United States illegally.”
Former Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah said Perry’s assertion that building a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border would be impractical struck him as “pretty much a treasonous comment,” an apparent reference to Perry’s much- maligned remark last month about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s monetary policy.
Perry last night stood by his criticism of Bernanke, saying it bordered on treason for a Federal Reserve chairman to allow politics to drive his actions.
“I am not a fan of the current chairman allowing that Federal Reserve to be used to cover up bad fiscal policy by this administration,” Perry said. “And that, I will suggest to you, is what we have seen.”
Before the debate, Romney and Perry released a series of endorsements aimed at highlighting their backing within the party.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race after losing the straw poll in Iowa, endorsed Romney and accepted a position as the campaign’s national co-chairman.
“Alone among the contenders, he possesses the unique qualifications to confront and master our severe economic predicament,” Pawlenty said of Romney in a news release.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced his support for Perry, giving the Texas governor his first major endorsement.
Also participating in the debate, the second of three scheduled for this month, were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and businessman Herman Cain.
The candidates heaped criticism on Obama, attacking the $447 billion job-creation plan his administration sent to Congress yesterday.
Democrats worry that Obama, 50, is politically vulnerable in next year’s election with the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent last month and approval ratings near lows of his presidency.
Obama’s $830 billion stimulus measure “created zero jobs,” Perry said, adding of the $447 billion job-growth plan the president sent Congress yesterday: “I can do the math on that one. Half of zero jobs is going to be zero jobs.”
--With assistance from Alison Fitzgerald in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Tampa, Florida, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington, at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com