Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has fallen steadily in the polls since Perry entered the race, emphasized her role in Washington as an opponent of the admnistration, saying she alone in the GOP field was committed to legislatively nullifying Obama's health care law. At one point, Perry said he would nix it with an executive order.
Bachmann also said that wasn't tough enough and also faulted Perry for signing an executive order as governor requiring pre-teen girls in Texas to receive an inoculation for the HPV virus, transmitted through sexual contact, that can lead to cervical cancer. "There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars," Bachmann said, referring to the profits linked to the inoculation requirement, calling Perry's decision "flat out wrong."
Looking stung, Perry identified the drug company involved.
"It was Merck," Perry said. "The contribution was $5,000." He noted that he has raised over $30 million in political contributions. "If you think I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
Bachmann shot back . "I'm offended by the little girls and mothers who didn't have a choice."
Perry said families had an opportunity to "opt out" of the vaccine program but admitted the decision was a mistake and that he should have consulted the Legislature rather than use an executive order. Both Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called the use of the executive order a grotesque government overreach. "This is big government run amok," Santorum said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he could find $70 billion to $120 billion in Medicare and Medicaid fraud and would make his watchword "stop paying the crooks" when it came to entitlement spending. He also said, to deep applause, that it was foolhardy for Romney, Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to compete over who created more jobs. "the American people create jobs, not government," Gingrich said.
Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain said he was the only non-politician in the race who could see issues clearly and deliver non-conventional change to Washington. He pitched his 9-9-9 tax plan, a new method that would impose a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax and 9 percent national sales tax.
Huntsman who, like Romney is a Mormon, offered the most interesting (or bizarre) metaphors.
"To hear these two go at over here it is almost incredible," Huntsman said, referring to the Perry-Romney spat on Social Security. "You've got Gov. Romney who called it a fraud in his book 'No Apology,' I don't know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you've got Gov. Perry calling it a Ponzi scheme. All I know is that we are frightening the American people who just want solutions. And this party isn't going to win in 2012 unless we get our act together and fix the problem."
Later, Huntsman said America had a "heroin-like" addiction to foreign oil, a remark made in the context of expanding U.S. exploration for oil and natural gas - something everyone on the stage supported. That made two heroin-laced references from Huntsman in the first hour. Cobain, the former front man of the late 1980s and early 1990s rock group Nirvana, battled a heroin addiction before committing suicide in 1994.
Perhaps Huntsman can account for the Cobain references. But he, like most of the others on stage, seemed destined for the basement of the GOP presidential race, while Perry fights to hold his lead, Romney fights to close the distance and Bachmann, a once-top contender who has fallen off the pace since Perry's arrival, struggles to regain relevance.
Image credit: Scott Audette/Reuters