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The Debate in Tampa: How Perry's Rivals Are Perfecting Their Attacks on the Frontrunner

CNN’s over-produced, odd-couple alliance with the Tea Party produced an unexpected result—the first “Not So Fast, Governor Perry” debate.

Direct from Tampa, the site of the 2012 GOP Convention, the debate illustrated Perry’s vulnerabilities as the poll-propelled Republican front-runner. Nothing that happened in Tampa Monday night was so dramatic that it likely will be remembered when the Republicans drench their nominee in confetti and balloons nearly a year from now. But if Perry falls short in the primaries, it will probably be because of attack lines that his rivals perfected in Tampa in September of this odd-numbered year.

On topics ranging from Social Security to his support for in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, Perry awkwardly struggled against a tag-team of his GOP rivals. Mitt Romney went toe-to-toe with Perry—or wing tip to cowboy boot—in a high-intensity exchange on job creation. Sniffing at Perry’s vaunted economic record in Texas, Romney cracked. “If you’re dealt four aces that doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player.” What seemed telling was not the practiced one-liners, but Romney’s surprising relish in repeatedly challenging Perry in the battle to be the Alpha Male on the debate stage.

But the worst moment for Perry came when Michele Bachmann, the lone woman on stage in Tampa, awoke midway through the debate after a month-long political slumber dating back to the Iowa Straw Poll. The topic that reinvigorated Bachmann was Perry's hastily abandoned 2007 attempt to vaccinate pre-teen girls in Texas against sexually transmitted diseases. During last week’s debate, Perry had come under fire on the issue from Ron Paul for decreeing the vaccination program by executive order instead of working through the legislature. But the libertarian gadfly was a minor political nuisance compared to Bachmann emerging as defender of girls everywhere.

“I’m a mom of three children,” Bachmann announced before letting go with coiled rage. “And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through executive order is just flat out wrong...Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan.” The larger political theme is not the health-care merits of Perry’s stance. Rather what matters in the months ahead is whether issues like this will raise lasting doubts that Perry is not the anti-government governor that he boasts about being.

This was clearly the moment that Bachmann had been waiting for—and she had carefully planned her follow-up attack. Pointing out that the governor’s former chief of staff was a top lobbyist for Merck, the drug giant that would have provided the vaccine, Bachmann implied that Perry was motivated by cronyism and campaign contributions. That was enough for Perry to snap, “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

Cracks like that can be dangerous. Perry’s response immediately brought to mind the punch line to the old joke: “We’ve already established what you are. We’re just haggling over the price.”

It was another attempted joke by Jon Huntsman that won the coveted Maladroit Comment of the Month Award. Trying to play off Perry’s inflammatory commentsabout Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and combining it with an attack on the Texas governor’s moderate stance on immigration, Huntsman said, “For Rick to say that you can’t secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment.” It was a jaw-dropping comment and, combined with an earlier Huntsman reference to Kurt Cobain, it underscored yet again that Obama’s former ambassador to China is running for the presidential nomination of a political party that doesn’t exist.

A September debate in the shadow of “Monday Night Football” was never going to transform the GOP race. It was also a difficult debate to handicap because the Tea Party cheering sections in the hall may have different responses than ordinary conservative GOP primary voters. Further complicating matters is that Perry is a candidate who plays off emotions and visceral responses—and, as a result, neither polling nor political instincts can fully predict how he will play with GOP voters over time.

Two debates in four days are almost as exhausting for political junkies at home as they are for the candidates. But what we have learned is that probably the best that Perry can ever do in a debate is to hold his own. Not naturally glib, Perry has to depend on the unflinching self-confidence that has propelled him through three terms as Texas governor. Monday night—under attack from everyone from Rick Santorum to Ron Paul—Perry was introduced to the perils of being the frontrunner.

Romney also has revealed something about himself in these last two debates. His chilly manner and his changeling political record may prevent him from ever winning the Republican nomination. But as a debater, Romney is fierce, disciplined and well-rehearsed. If Perry does indeed win the nomination, Romney will have made him earn it.

After watching nearly four hours of Republican debate since Thursday night, I will confess to feeling like a detective searching for a missing clue. The Perry versus Romney story line seems too simple, too predictable to define the race all the way to the Iowa caucuses. While Perry is still atop his perch, the only safe bet is that something unexpected will jumble the GOP contest before the first frost.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.