TAMPA, Fla. -- Rick Perry came into last night's debate here with a target on his back, leading in the polls only a month after his late entry into the Republican presidential campaign. His fellow GOP candidates fired at the Texas governor all night, but it wasn't until Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said the phrase "innocent little 12-year-old girls" that he suffered any serious wound.
Bachmann's poignant phrase was used in reference to Perry's controversial 2007 executive order mandating that every sixth-grade girl in Texas get vaccinated with Gardasil, a new drug to prevent the sexually transmitted disease human papilloma virus (HPV). Perry's decision was subsequently voided by the Texas legislature, and he has said he regrets trying to implement it by executive order, but continues to defend it as "making a difference in young people's lives," as he said during Monday's debate.
Bachmann drew cheers from the Tea Party audience when she said Perry's decision "to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong." And she also implied that Perry's decision was corrupt, mentioning his former chief of staff's position as a lobbyist for Merck, the company that makes Gardasil and a contributor to Perry's gubernatorial campaign. Perry responded by pointing out that Merck donated a mere $5,000 to his campaign, out of $30 million he raised. "If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry said, to which Bachmann replied: "I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents who didn't have a choice."
Perry said he saw the issue as one of "trying to save young people's lives," since HPV infection can cause cervical cancer. It fell to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a favorite of many social conservatives, to point out the difference between Gardasil and other vaccinations. "Ladies and gentlemen, why do we inoculate people with vaccines in public schools? Because we're afraid of those diseases being communicable between people at school. And therefore to protect the rest of the people at school, we have vaccinations to protect those children. Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their schools… then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the coercion of the government. It is big government run amok. It is bad policy and it should not be done." Santorum also drew applause.
The exchange about Gardasil came an hour into the debate on CNN sponsored by the Tea Party Express, but probably hurt Perry worse than the attempt by his rivals to capitalize on his comments about Social Security in last week's Reagan Library debate. Unlike the Social Security issue, where Perry's characterization of the program as a "Ponzi scheme" reflects a common conservative perspective, his Gardasil mandate enabled other Republicans to attack Perry from the right. The issue undermines his support among both social conservatives worried about "innocent little girls" and libertarians worried about government intrusion, and Perry's defense -- that he went about it the wrong way and should have first consulted the legislature -- doesn't do much to allay those concerns.
Perry was also hit for having supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at Texas colleges and provoked boos from the audience when he defended that policy by saying, "That's the American way." Again, Bachmann was the one to strike the blow again Perry. "I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally," said Bachmann, as the audience applauded and cheered. "That is not the American way."
Perry's emergence as the GOP front-runner has come largely at the expense of Bachmann, who won the Iowa Straw Poll the same day the Texan officially announced his candidacy at a conference in South Carolina. While Perry has eclipsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as national front-runner, it is Bachmann's support that has plummeted most in the past month. She may have begun recovering some of that lost ground in last night's debate. Despite the focus on Perry, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer was praised by staff for several campaigns -- including Herman Cain's -- for distributing the speaking time more evenly than had NBC's Brian Williams and Politico's John Harris in last week's Reagan Library debate.
Who won? It's hard to say. But Perry "took obvious hits that might do him some harm," Commentary editor John Podhoretz observed. "The main problem… is that he seems to think he can wing these debates by referring to what he did in Texas here and what he did in Texas there."
Perry and his supporters can take comfort in knowing that last night's debate reached a relatively small audience, since it ran opposite a Monday NFL double-header. And the candidates will meet again in just 10 days in an Orlando debate on Fox News. By then, Perry had better find a better way to explain himself.