TAMPA — Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry strolled into Monday night's CNN/Tea Party Express debate with one mission: Don't slip up.
As he fended off his challengers — particularly an unusually aggressive Mitt Romney trying to cast Perry as hostile to Social Security and with an exaggerated record for job creation — he didn't.
"I think Gov. Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces that doesn't make you a great poker player," Romney said, suggesting the Texas governor benefited from being in a low-tax, low-regulatory state and noting that Perry's two predecessors had stronger job growth records.
"Mitt, you were doing pretty good until you got to talkin' poker,'' quipped Perry, who at one point patted the former Massachusetts governor's back.
And so it went for nearly two hours in a lively debate punctuated by cheers and jeers from the crowd dominated by tea party conservatives: Perry the folksy, new frontrunner serving as the star of the show surrounded by supporting players repeatedly trying to put him on the defensive.
The barrage of attacks left no doubt: He is the frontrunner, he can take his share of shots, and he can give them as well.
Left uncertain was how Perry or any of the candidates will fare in a matchup against President Barack Obama.
The mix of conservative messages may not play well in the general election — Perry stood by an earlier comment that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was "almost treasonous" and implied enacting Social Security was a bad idea — but this was a CNN/Tea Party Express debate and the crowd of nearly 1,200 at the Florida State Fairgrounds roared at most any answer that included slashing spending and the size of government.
Libertarian Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul stood out for his repeated calls that America cut spending by pulling out of military entanglements overseas. He dismissed Perry's fiscal record in Texas, saying spending and debt rose along with his own tax bill.
"I don't want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something," Paul quipped.
At one point the debate included a five-minute back and forth between Perry and Romney over Perry's comments in his book Fed Up! that Social Security is an unconstitutional "Ponzi scheme."
Perry said that retirees currently have a "slam dunk guarantee … that program is going to be there for them when they arrive there." But, he said, the program needs to be reformed for younger people so that Social Security exists when they retire.
Romney, though, has called Perry's statements "unacceptable," "reckless" and a threat to the Republican Party itself.
"The term Ponzi scheme, I think, is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people," Romney said. "The real question is, does Gov. Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it's unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states?"
Said Perry: "If what you're trying to say is back in the '30s and '40s the federal government made all the right decisions, I disagree with you." The crowd cheered.
"I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America (are needed) rather than trying to scare seniors like you're doing and other people," he continued.
Romney: "Governor, the term Ponzi scheme is what scares seniors, No. 1. And No. 2: Suggesting Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states because it's unconstitutional is likewise frightening."
A Sept. 9-11 CNN/ORC International Poll found Perry comfortably leading the Republican field with 32 percent, compared to 21 percent for Romney, 13 percent for Paul, 7 percent for Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, and the others trailing behind.
That made Perry a target for almost everything — including immigration.
Perry gave in-state college tuition rates to people who had lived in Texas for three years, "regardless of your last name."
Bachmann said it was too similar to Obama's "Dream Act," which would create a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants. "The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who broke our laws," she said to cheers.
Where the other candidates said they wanted a fence and wall across the border, Perry pointed out that it was too tough along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman suggested the comment was almost treasonous, drawing boos from a few in the audience and a laugh from Perry.
Huntsman, when asked about Utah giving illegal immigrants drivers' licenses, attacked Romney instead as a flip-flopper.
Perry was hit from multiple sides over his decision as Texas governor to issue an executive order mandating young girls be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus.
"At the end of the day, this was about trying to stop a cancer," he said, repeatedly acknowledging he made a mistake. "I am always going to err on the side of life."
But Bachmann suggested he was also helping out a contributor and his former chief of staff, who was a lobbyist for Merck, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the vaccine Gardasil.
Perry pointed out that the vaccine wasn't required because parents could opt out and that Merck only contributed $5,000 of the $30 million he raised in campaign contributions.
"If you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry said.
"I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents who didn't have a choice," Bachmann responded, as applause rippled through the audience.
Bachmann also fired up the crowd by repeatedly calling for the repeal of "Obamacare" — something all the Republican candidates agree on.
While the candidates offered few specific proposals for creating jobs, Herman Cain was the most specific in his answers, providing bullet-pointed responses to questions about how he would reform Social Security (by adopting a model used in Chile) or make health insurance more affordable (by changing lawsuit rules and repealing Obama's health care law).
At one point Gingrich pointed out that Obama is the real target.
"I'm not particularly worried about Gov. Perry or Gov. Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day," Gingrich said.
Florida was a fitting setting for the debate as it is expected to hold one of the earlier primary contests and could effectively decide the nomination in late January. Next week, Fox News hosts another debate in Orlando and the Florida Republican Party holds a mock election for state activists to anoint their favorite.
Meanwhile, Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was on hand in Tampa to take at least a sliver of the spotlight away from the GOP: "This election is going to be a very clear choice. Tonight these Republicans will worship at the altar of the tea party. They will continue to try to out-extreme and out-right wing each other. . . . Contrast that with President Obama and Democrats."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]