Romney and Perry Clash in Florida Debate

Perry was equally undaunted another issue. After Rep. Michele Bachmann pivoted on a question about her claim that the HPV vaccine had caused mental retardation in a young girl to attack Perry's efforts to mandate it, the governor issued an impassioned defense that put a face on his policy.

"I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer," Perry said, saying he had already "readily admitted" the program should have included "an opt-in" clause.

"The fact is, I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life," Perry said. The exchange points to central weaknesses for both candidates. Bachmann has developed a reputation for coughing up factually wrong statements in public, and much was made of her post-debate narrative of the young girl who developed mental retardation after the vaccine, a story Bachmann said the girl's mother had told her.

"I didn't make that claim nor do I make that statement. Immediately after a debate a mother came up to me and was visibly shaken and heart broken because of what her daughter had gone through. I only related what her story was," Bachmann said, shifting responsibility for the claim to the woman who had approached her.

Perry, on the other hand, has been parrying questions about both the big-government feel of a mandatory vaccine program for young girls and Bachmann's charges of crony capitalism because his former chief of staff, a longtime friend, had lobbied for drug company Merck.

From the early moments of the debate, Perry and Romney showed Republican presidential debate how their respective home states figure in the GOP primary. Perry played up his home state and its enviable job growth record in the midst of a recession. Romney, ex-governor of liberal bastion Massachusetts, is happy to downplay policies he pursued there -- such as health care form -- that are unlikely to be assets in a GOP nomination contest dominated by conservatives. Instead of looking back on his record, Romney was happy to play up his future vision for the national economy.

Boasting that the Lone Star State has been the leading destination for relocating workers for five years in a row, Perry jovially acknowledged Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the audience and added: "We plan on keeping it that way, Rick."

Perry's competitive jab may have been intended as a friendly one, but his emphasis on Texas's continued success at the expense of other states, underscores concerns by some of his advisers that the governor's appeal could be circumscribed by his state's border. Romney, on the other hand, played up federal priorities: corporate tax rates, the desire for regulators and government to ally with businesses, middle class tax cuts, and trade policies that could help U.S. businesses against competitors such as China.

Perry's foreign policy agenda has been hard to define and he didn't help himself at the debate. Asked what he would do if he received a "3 a.m. phone call" saying that Pakistan had lost control of its nuclear weapons to the Taliban, the Texas governor demurred. Responding would depend on building strong relationships with other countries, he said. "The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by with them," he said. "Today we don't have those allies in that region that can assist us, if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality."

Though most of the political attention is focused on the frontrunners Perry and Romney, the applause meter seemed to register the highest responses for Herman Cain and Ron Paul.

Cain even took a shot at Romney, to the crowd's delight, when he compared their plans for overhauling the tax system.

"Unlike Governor Romney's plan, my plan throws out the old one he's still hooked to the current tax code," he said. "That dog won't hunt."

Paul followed Cain, and received a question, sent via video from a couple in Indiana, right in the libertarian's wheelhouse: Would he limit the size of the federal government?

"The responsibility of the president would be to veto every single bill that violates the 10th amendment. That would be the solution," he said, succinctly. Moderator Chris Wallace, taken aback by the congressman's brevity, joked that he had much more time to answer the question.

Image credit: Reuters

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Jim O'Sullivan & Alex Roarty

Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily. Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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