7 GOP Presidential Candidates Gang Up Against Perry

Eight Republican presidential candidates gathered Monday night in Tampa, Fla., for a debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. The event marked the first time the Tea Party Express has been an official sponsor of a presidential debate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the center of attention.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Anybody following the Republican presidential debate last night could see the effect of polls.

GREENE: First, there's President Obama's approval rating. Since it's well below 50 percent right now, pundits are intensely watching to see who emerges on the Republican side.

INSKEEP: Next, there's Texas Governor Rick Perry's jump to the front of the GOP field in the polls. That guaranteed Perry plenty of scrutiny last night.

GREENE: A Tea Party group, the Tea Party Express, co-sponsored the debate. And in a moment, we'll hear from some in the audience. We begin with NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: In case anyone was thinking that by sponsoring last night's debate the Tea Party was getting co-opted by the GOP establishment, Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express made it clear she saw the takeover working the other way around.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

AMY KREMER: We are here because we, the people, are going to choose the next Republican nominee for president - not the Republican Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: The event's co-sponsor was CNN, and the original cable news network got the conflict it may have hoped for as soon as the questioning began. Sparks flew right away between Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had been the front runner until Perry came along. In his first debate appearance last week, Perry called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and a failure. And in a book he released early this year, he suggested the program was unconstitutional. But last night in Tampa, he walked that back a bit, stressing that no one in the program now should worry about it going away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GREENE: But the idea that we have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face - young, midcareer professionals, or kids that are my children's age - and looked them in the eye and said listen, this is a broken system. It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me.

GONYEA: At that point, Romney pounced.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: But the question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program - as you did six months ago, when your book came out - and returned to the states, or do you want to retreat from that position?

PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation...

ROMNEY: We're having that right now, Governor. That's - we're running for president.

PERRY: If you'll let me finish, I'll finish this conversation.

GONYEA: It was early, but that set the tone for the entire night as one candidate after another went after Perry and his record as governor. Debate moderator Wolf Blitzer set off another heated exchange with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

BLITZER: Governor Perry, as you well know, you signed an executive order requiring little girls, 11- and 12-year-old girls, to get a vaccine to deal with a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Was that a mistake?

PERRY: It was, indeed.

GONYEA: Perry said if he had to do it over, he would have gone through the legislature rather than issuing an executive order. This time, congresswoman Michele Bachmann took Perry on, calling the vaccination, quote, a government injection that was forced on little girls. Perry explained that parents could opt not to have their daughters get the vaccine. Bachmann rejected that, and accused Perry of implementing the program to help a campaign donor.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GREENE: What I'm saying is that it's wrong for a drug company, because the governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company - the drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BACHMANN: I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. That's what I'm offended for.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Bachmann has long been a Tea Party champion, and in this exchange she scored points as some in the crowd audibly booed the Texas governor, a man polls show to be the Tea Party favorite at this point in the campaign. Then came the issue of immigration, which prompted still more candidate assaults on Perry - and more boos from the audience - when he defended a law he signed in Texas allowing children of illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: And the bottom line is, it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you, and that's what we've done in the state of Texas. And I'm proud...

GONYEA: Perry was far from alone in braving the disapproval of the Tampa crowd, which was hostile to some of Romney's replies and even a few from congressman Ron Paul. But it was a night when Perry got a glimpse of what life is like for the front runner. In that sense, it may have been the first night his Republican rivals played for keeps. There will be many such nights to come. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Tampa.

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