WASHINGTON -- The frontrunner status is starting to smart. If Rick Perry felt like a piñata during his first debate last week, the second debate on Monday night might have left the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate feeling like the bashed-in fax machine in the movie "Office Space."
Perry responded ably to criticisms of his record on Social Security, which had beset him over the last week. But as he dealt with the controversy over calling the program a "Ponzi scheme," three more issues opened up, damaging him in the eyes of conservatives.
Most significantly, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) went hard after Perry for his 2007 attempt to mandate vaccinations of sixth-grade girls against the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease and a lead cause of cervical cancer. This issue had been raised in last week's debate. But unlike then, Bachmann pointed out that Perry's former chief of staff in the governor's office had been part of the lobbying effort for drug manufacturer Merck, which stood to benefit by administering the vaccine.
That led to a low point for Perry, when he defended himself this way: "The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million, and if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
Bachmann shot back: "Well I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) then piled on with righteous indignation, accusing Perry of overseeing "big government run amok."
The Bachmann campaign quickly sent out a press release to reporters accusing Perry of "crony capitalism."
"It remains unclear how much his ties to Merck, [the drug] Gardasil's maker, influenced this decision," the Bachmann release said, pointing out that Perry received $6,000 from Merck, not $5,000, and arguing that "the drug maker stood to make tens of millions off Perry's order until the legislature overturned it."
Bachmann sent out an email to supporters just before midnight on Monday calling Perry's actions "a violation of liberty and everything you and I stand for."
To make matters worse for Perry, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin added her voice in support of Bachmann's to criticize Perry after the debate was over. “That’s crony capitalism," she said of Perry's mandate in an appearance on Fox News. "That’s part of the problem that we have in this country is that people are afraid, even in our own party, to call one another out on that. True reform and fighting the corruption and fighting the crony capitalism is a tough thing to do within your own party."
Perry's other dings came on his economic record and on the issue of immigration. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said his state taxes have doubled under Perry and that the state's debt has tripled, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pointed out that job creation in Texas had been at a higher rate under Perry's predecessors, one of whom was a Democrat. And the deeply conservative crowd also booed Perry when he defended allowing children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at universities.
"It doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is," Perry said. "That is the American way."
Altogether, the three criticisms of Perry chipped away at his image of a rock-ribbed conservative.
But the HPV issue may be the one that harms Perry the most. Unlike the Social Security issue, where Perry's iconoclastic comments had endeared him to many portions of the conservative base, the HPV topic will hurt him with the grassroots, especially as it becomes a bigger focus of the campaign in the coming days. What is worse for Perry: the issue alienates both small government conservatives and Republicans who are more conscious of social issues.
Perry attempted to mitigate the damage. He said he should have worked with the state legislature instead of issuing an executive order that attempted to circumvent them. But he portrayed his motives as pure.
"What was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people's lives. Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die," Perry said. "You may criticize me about the way that I went about it, but at the end of the day I am always going to err on the side of life."
That grab for the anti-abortion crowd likely won't stand up under scrutiny, as social conservatives absorb the fact that not only did Perry unilaterally make a decision that appeared to benefit a close associate then working for a drug company, he also mandated a vaccine that assumes sexual activity among sixth-graders. Many liberals and independents may approve of that, but for evangelicals and Catholics in particular, who prefer an emphasis on abstinence, it will rub them the wrong way.
There is another twist to the HPV issue. The man who served as Perry's chief of staff and then became a lobbyist for Merck, Mike Toomey, now runs one of the six super PACs supporting Perry. Super PACs can receive unlimited funds, unlike presidential campaigns, though they do have to disclose their donors. Their only significant limitation is that they cannot coordinate with the candidate's campaign.
Many of the candidates, including Romney and Bachmann, have super PACs. But Perry's association with such a group, run by the same man who was involved in the HPV fiasco, will raise questions about the extent to which Perry is a typical politician rather than a reformer.
As for Bachmann, her fiery attack on Perry was a key moment for the Tea Party favorite. She has been hurt by Perry's entrance into the race -- he has overshadowed her with an emphasis on his executive experience and has cut into her support among conservatives. But by tearing the Texan down, Bachmann injected herself back into the race. She still faces an uphill battle against Perry, but if she is to have any chance of staying in the race, she must deconstruct him.
All of this helps Romney, who also has seen his standing in the polls diminished by Perry. If Bachmann and Perry are locked in a battle for the right wing of the GOP, that gives Romney a clearer path to the nomination.
Perry had a ready answer for Romney on Social Security, but it was a departure from the no-retreat posture that had defined his approach until Monday. Perry's first words on the topic were: "The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something: slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those."
Those words alone showed that Romney's attacks on the issue were getting to Perry, no matter what his supporters or Tea Party activists said about Romney becoming the face of the entitlement status quo. He backed off his provocative rhetoric as well. He uttered the phrase "Ponzi scheme" only once, and then only to point out that Social Security "has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me."
Nonetheless, Perry scored his biggest punch of the night when he accused Romney of scare tactics, a complaint usually lodged by Republicans against Democrats on the issue of Social Security.
"Rather than trying to scare seniors like you're doing and other people, it's time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it's not bankrupt and our children actually know that there's going to be a retirement program there for them," Perry said.
Perry also appeared to limit his idea of letting states handle Social Security to the realm of state and local government employees.
"The issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees?" he asked, echoing the thoughts of his top strategist Dave Carney after last week's debate.
The candidates now move into a two-week period until the next debate, in Orlando. By then it will be clear how much damage was inflicted on Perry in Monday night's debate, and whether he still has an upward trajectory or whether he must fight to sustain his status as the frontrunner and conservative standard-bearer.