Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Perry assailed by rivals, forced to defend record

WASHINGTON (MSNBC) — Attacked from all sides, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a snarky campaign debate Monday night and fended off attacks on his record creating jobs and requiring the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.

It marked the first time in the summer debates that internal Republican differences dominated rather than a common eagerness to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.

Early questioning involved several sharp exchanges about Social Security.

"A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away," said Perry.

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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.

'Over the top' Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney responded by saying that Perry is scaring seniors with his rhetoric. He called Perry's characterization of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme "over the top" and "frightful."

He hammered Perry to answer whether he still questions if Social Security should be a federal program, recalling statements the Texas governor made in his recent book, "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington."

Perry remarked that Romney called the program "criminal." To loud audience applause, a smiling Perry quipped, "That's in your book."

"You've got to quote me correctly," Romney responded. "What I said was taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is criminal and it's wrong."

At last week's NBC News/POLITICO debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the two rivals shared similar barbs over the program.

Gingrich gets standing ovation

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received the debate's first standing ovation following that Perry/Romney exchange. He joked that he's not worried about the two frontrunners scaring Americans, because Obama "scares them every day."

It was 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 entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

None of the three who have gotten the most support so far this year — Perry, Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — said they favored repealing the prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which has a large unfunded liability.

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Texas Rep. Ron Paul, asked the same question, turned his answer to a call for ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ways to save money.

Things also got testy between Perry and Romney over job creation. The former Massachusetts governor said Perry shouldn't get all the credit for job growth in the Lone Star state. "If you're dealt four aces, that doesn't necessarily make you a great poker player."

Romney contended that Texas enjoys advantages other states lack, such as oil and a Republican legislature. He also noted that Perry's predecessors in the Texas governor's mansion had higher percentages of job creation.

Perry said that he deserves many of the accolades, touting tort reform in his state. "While the country lost over two million jobs ... Texas gained over a million jobs." He boasted, "Tell the trial lawyers to get out ... That has to happen in states and at the federal level."

Bachmann also shared a tense moment with Perry over an executive order he signed requiring a vaccine for young girls in Texas to prevent cervical cancer .

Bachmann, whose candidacy surged and then fell back in the polls in less than a month, 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."

She brought up a donation that the Texas governor received from Gardasil manufacturer Merck & Co., and noted that former Perry staffer went to work for the drugmaker as a lobbyist.

"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 retorted.

"I'm offended for the little girls who don't have a choice," she snapped back.

Perry said he'd do things differently if he could, but at the time, "this was about trying to stop a cancer." He added, "I am always going to err on the side of life."

Illegal immigration

The two also sparred over the subject of illegal immigration, with Perry defending Texas' stance on offering in-state tuition to students who have lived there for at least three years and are working toward citizenship.

He called it a "states' rights issue" and said it prevents illegal immigrants from being "on the government dole."

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