Republican Presidential Candidates Spar at Tea Party Debate
TAMPA - Attacked from all sides by fellow Republicans, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a snarky presidential campaign debate Monday night. He fended off assaults on his record of creating jobs and requiring the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.
Across a crackling two-hour debate, the front-runner in opinion polls gave little ground and frequently jabbed back, particularly at his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The debate - the second in less than a week - was sponsored by tea party groups and CNN.
In the debate’s first few moments, Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., 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.
But it soon became clear that the presidential hopefuls were not only eager to court support from the most conservative voters but were anxious not to offend seniors and others who depend on Social Security and Medicare.
Romney Moves In
Within minutes, Romney moved aggressively to press Perry on Social Security, saying the front-runner had previously called it a Ponzi scheme, an absolute failure and unconstitutional.
Perry did not dispute the characterization. Monday night, he said retirees and near-retirees will receive the benefits they’ve been promised, but changes are needed to make sure younger workers have any sort of benefit when they near retirement.
Romney wasn’t satisfied with that, quoting others as saying the Texas governor’s position on Social Security could spell defeat in a race against Obama. Repeatedly, he pressed Perry to say whether he believes the program is unconstitutional. Just as insistently, Perry ducked.
Then he countered, quoting Romney as having said that if people did with their financing what had been done with Social Security receipts, it would be a criminal offense.
"You’ve got to quote me correctly," Romney said. "What I said was taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is criminal and it’s wrong."
Social Security benefits are financed through a payroll tax that workers and their employers pay. The trust fund has been tapped for years to pay for federal spending, and consists largely of IOU’s in the form of Treasury bonds.
Bachmann and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum were the aggressors when the topic turned to an executive order Perry signed in 2007 requiring the vaccination of Texas schoolgirls against STD.
Bachmann said that "to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It’s a violation of a liberty interest."
Perry said it was a mistake to issue an executive order, but he defended wanting to have the vaccinations take effect.
Bachman didn’t stop there. She said that "a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate" also donated to Perry.
"The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended," Perry said.