Clarifying his position on Social Security, Republican front-runner Rick Perry offered a "slam-dunk guarantee" to senior citizens Monday night that their benefits will remain intact as he faced ramped-up assaults from his GOP rivals in a nationally televised debate aimed primarily at Tea Party voters.
In his second debate since entering the race in mid-August, the Texas governor again squared off against his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and encountered sniping from other GOP rivals in a lively two-hour discussion that touched on a host of issues from the economy and immigration to national security.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, seeking to re-energize her candidacy after a lackluster showing in last week's California debate, assailed Perry for his 2007 decision requiring girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccination against cervical cancer, saying the order was "just wrong" and violated personal freedom.
Bachmann also said Perry was handing out political favors to a company, Merck, which was represented by a former Perry staffer.
"There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate," Bachmann said. "The governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company."
Perry said he was trying to help young Texans. "At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life," he said, adding that he received a $5,000 donation from Merck. "I raised $30 million and if you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
Bachman replied, "I'm offended for all the little girls and parents that didn't have a choice."
Perry and Romney, the two chief rivals for the Republican nomination, continued exchanges over jobs and Social Security that began in last week's debate.
Perry's earlier description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" has prompted accusations from Romney that Perry wants to dismantle the 76-year-old public retirement program and would scare off potential voters in the general election. But Perry sought to assure Americans that he wants to protect existing benefits and begin "a conversation" on restructuring the program.
"The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something, slam-dunk guarantee, the program is going to be there in place," Perry said. "But no one has had the courage to stand up and say here is how we are going to reform it, transform it, for those in those midcareer ages. We're going to fix it so our young Americans going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt there were people who came along that didn't lie to them. That didn't try to go around the edges and told them the truth."
Romney said, "Governor, the term 'Ponzi scheme' is what scared seniors."
Romney again suggested that Perry doesn't deserve all the credit for Texas' robust economy and nation-leading record of job creation. Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson also questioned Perry's stewardship of the economy, saying his taxes have increased under the governor's leadership.
"I would put a little damper on this, but I don't want to offend the governor," Paul said. "He might raise my taxes."
Perry said people are moving to Texas because "they know there's a land of freedom in America ... and it's called Texas."
Perry defended his support of state policy allowing illegal immigrants who have been in Texas at least three years, who are working toward a college degree and pursuing citizenship, to pay in-state tuition.
Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610