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 a 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 eight rivals shared a debate stage for the second time in less than a week, a pace that marked a quickening in the campaign to choose a challenger to President Barack Obama in 2012. The encounter 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.
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.
None of the three who have gotten the most support so far this year — Perry, Romney and Bachmann — said they favored repealing the prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which has a large unfunded liability. Paul, asked the same question, turned his answer to a call for ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ways to save money.
There was little time for niceties.
Within minutes of the debate's beginning,, 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. In his recent book he called the retirement income program an example of a federal initiative that is "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government."
Monday night, he said retirees and near-retirees are assured of receiving the benefits they've been promised — and should be — 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 for the party as it tries to win the White House from Obama next year. Repeatedly, he pressed Perry to say whether he believes the program is unconstitutional. Just as insistently, Perry ducked.