Tonight, Texas governor Rick Perry finally got a taste of what it's really like to really be a front-runner in a GOP presidential race. During his first presidential debate last week, Perry locked horns with Mitt Romney and had to defend his record on job creation and his rhetoric on Social Security. Tonight, for the first time, Perry was seriously challenged from the right on his immigration record and executive order mandating that sixth grade girls receive a vaccine to prevent HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann forcefully attacked Perry on the HPV mandate. "To have innocent little twelve year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong," she said.
Perry replied that parents could opt-out of the shot and said, "At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life."
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer tried to move on, but Bachmann interrupted to hit the alleged crony capitalism angle of the HPV mandate as well. "The governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company," she said. "The question is: Is it about life or is it about millions of dollars or potentially billions for a drug company?"
"The company was Merck," Perry replied. "And it was a $5,000 contribution that I had receive from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
"I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice," Bachmann shot back. Then former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum piled on, saying that Perry still thinks his policy was correct but he thought he went about it the wrong way.
Perry was also attacked for his record on illegal immigration. "The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who broke our laws," Bachmann said of Texas's policy to give the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition.
"What we did in Texas was clearly a states' rights issue," Perry said. He seemd to imply that some opposition to the policy was motivated by bigotry, saying "We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you."
Immigration was one of the few issues on which Mitt Romney could attack Perry from the right, and the former Massachusetts governor didn't miss his opportunity. "[Latino voters] or their ancestors did not come here for a hand out. If they came for a handout they'd be voting for Democrats," Romney said. "They came here for opportunity and freedom, and that's why we're going to get support from Latino voters across the country."
"Of course we build a fence," he continued. "And of course we don't give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegallly."
Perry certainly seemed to have a rougher go of it in this debate than he did in the first one. In addition to the HPV and immigration issues, Perry suggested that he's in favor of having a "conversation" about having the states run Social Security rather than the federal government. He also gave a muddled answer on Afghanistan, saying he agreed with Governor Jon Huntsman's call to withdraw the troops, but also thinks its important we have a presence to build help the Afghanis build infrastructure. We'll know soon enough if Perry's performance hurts him in the polls.