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Perry Is Roughed Up But Not Knocked Out After Tea Party Debate

Editor's note: This column first appeared in the Washington Examiner. 

In the hours before the Republican debate in Tampa Monday night, political insiders asked just two questions. Would Rick Perry knock out Mitt Romney? Or would Mitt Romney knock out Rick Perry? 

As it turned out, the question they should have asked was, "What if Romney and Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich got together to gang up on Perry?" 

That's exactly what happened onstage at the Florida Fairgrounds, with the candidates hitting Perry hard on Social Security, his jobs record in Texas, his decision to mandate a vaccination for young girls, and immigration. When it was over, Perry had not been knocked out, but he was definitely wobbly on his feet.

Perry's first and most predictable fight of the night was with Romney over the issue of Social Security, centering on Perry's now-famous description of the program as a "Ponzi scheme." There were no winners. 

Romney's defense of Social Security reminds some conservative Republicans of Democratic rhetoric, which they find off-putting. But Perry quite pointedly backed down from the most incendiary charges he has made about Social Security. He uttered the words "Ponzi scheme," but only to say that others have called Social Security that in the past. He did not call Social Security a failure, nor did he take Romney's bait and defend his declaration that it is unconstitutional. "A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that program away," Perry said -- a statement that sounded positively Romneyesque.

The next clash began as Romney against Perry but soon broadened to include other candidates. The issue was jobs and Perry's record on job creation in Texas. Romney was asked how much credit Perry deserved for Texas' impressive growth, and as he did at the last debate, Romney suggested that Perry had a lot of unearned advantages, such as a Republican legislature and Supreme Court, vast energy resources, and the absence of a state income tax. "I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you've been dealt four aces, it doesn't make you a great poker player," Romney said, veering into a folksiness that just does not suit him. This virtually invited Perry to respond, as he did, "Mitt, you were doing pretty good before you got to talking poker."

Still, Romney stung Perry with faint praise when he said, "There has been great growth in Texas. Under Ann Richards, job growth was two-point-five percent a year, under George Bush it was three percent a year, under Rick Perry it's been one percent a year. Those are all good numbers." 

There is some argument about the precise percentages of job growth under various Texas governors, but Romney was correct that the growth rate was higher under Perry's predecessors, Democrat and Republican, than under Perry. And Romney got in one final shot when he said that it's one thing to govern in a state where things are going well, "but if the country needs a turnaround, that's what I do."

Then it was time for Ron Paul, a longtime congressman from Texas, to jump in. "I'm a taxpayer there," Paul said. "My taxes have gone up." Paul also said that about 170,000 of the new jobs in Texas are government jobs, facts that "put a little damper" on Perry's record.

Through it all, jobs and Social Security, Perry held his own. The fact is, his record in Texas is good and a lot of the Republican base agrees with him about Social Security. 

But there was trouble waiting for Perry as the debate moved on.

Questioned about his executive order to mandate the vaccination of young girls in Texas against the HPV virus, Perry did something audiences don't often see him do: He apologized for imposing the vaccinations through an executive order, rather than working through the legislature. "It was," Perry said when asked if his action was a mistake. "And indeed, if I had to do it over again, I would have done it differently. I would have gone to the state legislature." But Perry's was an apology for circumventing the proper process, not for the vaccination policy itself.

That wasn't enough for Michele Bachmann, who called Perry's decision "flat out wrong." "That should never be done," Bachmann said. Bachmann then brought up the charge that the vaccine was made by one of Perry's campaign contributors. "I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order, there was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can't deny that," Bachmann said.

A little taken aback, Perry said that the campaign contribution, from Merck Pharmaceuticals, was $5,000, out of $30 million that he has raised. "If you're saying I can be bought by $5,000, I'm offended," he told Bachmann.

Without even a moment's pause, Bachmann shot back, "Well, I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. That's what I'm offended for." It was a clear winner for Bachmann.

Then came immigration. Perry is viewed with suspicion by some in the Republican base because he opposes a border fence, opposes the E-verify system to make employers check whether new hires are in this country legally, supports in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and favors a guest-worker program. When Perry tried to stand his ground Monday night, he found himself under attack from Romney -- "Of course we build a fence," Romney said -- and then Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator, who always explains that he is the descendant of Italian immigrants, hit Perry hard on the fence and on in-state tuition. 

Then Bachmann joined in on the same subject. After blows from all around, Perry was reduced to saying, "The bottom line is that it doesn't matter what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way." It wasn't a popular line in the room.

By that point, Perry had become a candidate the voters did not see in last week's debate at the Reagan Library. He was at times hesitant, forced off his game by Romney, Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum, and perhaps in need of more preparation. It's likely he'll do a little more studying for the next debate, presented by Fox News, on September 22.

One last word. After GOP debates in South Carolina, Iowa, California, and now Florida, it's time to admit something that has become more obvious with each new gathering: At any given moment, Newt Gingrich is capable of taking control of the debate, displaying a deeper knowledge of government than anyone on stage, and focusing the conversation to the Republicans' chief goal, the defeat of Barack Obama. While the other candidates fight with each other, Gingrich reminds everyone that for the GOP, Obama is the problem. It's not a way to win the nomination, but Gingrich the candidate is coming into his own as a guiding voice in the debates. Plagued by missteps early in his campaign, Gingrich is fast recovering his reputation through his performances at the podium.

Byron York is a Fox News contributor and chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.com.