(Updates with criticism of Perry beginning in second paragraph.)
Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Rick Perry fought to protect his frontrunner status in the Republican presidential race, fending off attacks targeting him on Social Security, immigration, and other issues in a candidate debate tonight.
Attacks on Perry by other Republicans vying for the party’s nomination included a suggestion that his policies were influenced by campaign donors. The debate’s spirited nature highlighted the campaign’s increasingly combative tone.
Perry shot back, defending his record and positions, particularly in give-and-takes with his closest competitor in the polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Romney kicked off the debate by taking aim at Perry’s characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi Scheme,” a stance some Republicans say could undercut the Texan’s chances in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Perry said he wouldn’t change the program for current retirees or those soon to become eligible, accusing Romney of “trying to scare seniors” instead of having “a legitimate conversation with Americans about how to fix that program.”
Romney quickly fired back, “The term Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors.”
Perry has surged to the top in national polls of Republican-leaning voters since entering the race a month ago, displacing Romney as the leader and cutting into support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Tonight’s debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa follows five days after Perry, Romney and the six other Republican candidates sparred at a similar forum at the library and burial place of party icon Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, California.
Bachmann, a heroine of the Tea Party groups that co- sponsored the forum with CNN, worked to win back the support of the activists who had fueled a rise in the polls for her before Perry entered the race.
She attacked Perry for a 2007 executive order he issued in Texas requiring that pre-teenage 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 said.
Perry responded by saying that Merck had donated $5,000 to his gubernatorial campaign -- an amount dwarfed by the millions he has raised. “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said.
Bachmann is seeking to regain traction as a viable candidate as the poll suggests the race is becoming a two-way contest between Romney and Perry.
In a CNN/ORC International poll released today, 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. Those running ahead of her included former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the party’s 2009 vice presidential nominee who hasn’t said yet whether she will run for the White House.
No Credit Given
Romney had led most surveys for several months before Perry joined the race. He worked to undercut Perry’s major campaign argument -- his economic record in Texas -- by refusing to give him credit for Texas’s prosperity during his term of governor. Romney attributed the state’s economic success 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.”
The attacks on Perry then moved on to the immigration issue, with Perry 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. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania 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,” Perry 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 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.
Before tonight’s 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 Aug. 13 Republican 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 will back Perry, CNN reported today, giving the Texas governor his first major endorsement.
Also participating in the debate were Representative Ron Paul of Texas, 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 today.
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.
Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984 after the rate had dropped more than three percentage points during the previous two years he was in office.
The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicts a rate at 8.6 percent in the third quarter of next year, just prior to the election.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Tampa, Florida, at email@example.com; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington, at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
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