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Old issues that didn't bite Perry in '10 campaign dog him on national stage

AP

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

TAMPA, FL -- While Social Security was widely expected to dominate this debate in retiree-rich Florida, entitlement reform took a back seat to other issues on Monday as Republican candidates engaged in the most aggressive GOP slug fest since Rick Perry entered the race.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum teamed up to skewer Perry on his support of mandated vaccination of girls against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease known to cause cervical cancer. In the debate last week, Romney offered an olive branch to the Texas governor, saying that Perry's "heart was in the right place" on the issue and he should consider his poor handling of the legislation "a mulligan." But Bachmann, largely quiet for the first half of the debate, did not offer such a pass, lambasting Perry for forcing government "injections." She also shone a national spotlight on a story that has simmered in Texas for years -- that Perry's chief of staff worked for the company (Merck) that manufactured the vaccine.

Santorum chimed in to assist. "He's saying that his policy was right," he said. "He believes that what he did was right. He thinks he went about it the wrong way. I believe your policy is wrong."

Team Bachmann viewed the exchange as enough of a success to warrant an email fundraising blast highlighting it less than two hours after the debate's conclusion.

The Tea Party-heavy crowd applauded both of Perry's rivals, but it saved its harshest response of the night for Perry's explanation of Texas's policy of offering in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who are working towards citizenship.

As Perry explained: "If you've been in the state of Texas for three years, if you're working towards your college degree, and if you are working and pursuing citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there. And the bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way -- no matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint if your parents brought you there or what have you."

That statement drew raucous boos from the audience and a bewildered reaction from Perry, who generally thrives in encounters with national Tea Party audiences.

The boos turned into applause when Bachmann pounced on the comment: "I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way."

It's worth noting that these two issues have long caused some uneasiness with Tea Party conservatives in Perry's home state. (see:
Medina, Debra). The Statesman's Jason Embry points out that Kay Bailey Hutchison used the HPV/cronyism argument against Perry in 2010. Palin (of "crony capitalism" slams) campaigned for Perry in that race.

But now we're seeing them on the national stage, and -- at least here in Tampa -- it wasn't pretty for the governor.