In some ways, it was a night of political déjà vu.
In their second face-off in less than a week, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney kicked off Monday night's Republican presidential debate in Florida just as they did last week's forum in New Hampshire, with a spirited debate over the future of Social Security.
Perry opened his remarks with a noticeably softer tone toward the program, which he had previously described as a "Ponzi scheme" and a "miserable failure." This time out, the Texas governor insisted that he's not trying to take away the program from millions of Americans who depend on it for their monthly retirement checks.
"First off, 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 people currently on Social Security, Perry insisted. "Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program's going to be there for them when they arrive there."
But Romney wasn't about to let Perry's previous comments slide. He pressed Perry on his rhetoric, calling it "over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people."
Perry, in turn, accused Romney of "trying to scare seniors," to which Romney quickly retorted, "The term 'Ponzi scheme' and talk of making it a state program is what scared seniors."
On the issue of whether the Social Security should be a state or federal program, the Texas governor interjected, "We ought to have that conversation."
"We're having that right now, governor. . . .We're running for president," Romney shot back.
You can watch the back and forth here, courtesy of CNN:
The exchange set the tone for much of the night. Perry's rivals aimed to chip away at the Texas governor's status as the race's current frontrunner. Among other things, Romney and Paul took aim at Perry's record on jobs in Texas while Jon Huntsman accused Perry of making a "treasonous" comment about the nation's lax border security.
In one of the other key exchanges of the night, Michele Bachmann (and later Rick Santorum) slammed Perry for his 2007 executive order requiring Texas schoolgirls to be vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that has been proven to cause cervical cancer.
Perry has repeatedly apologized for the order—and did so again tonight, calling it a "mistake."
"What was driving me obviously was making a difference in young people's lives," Perry said. "Cervical cancer is a terrible way to die."
But Bachmann slammed the Texas governor, questioning whether he was motivated by the idea of preventing cancer or if he was motivated by lobbying from the drug's producer, Merck.
The Minnesota congresswoman noted that a former chief of staff for Perry became one of Merck's top lobbyists in Texas and suggested that the governor steered the vaccination contract in exchange for a $5,000 donation.
"Was this about life? Or was it about million of dollars and potential billions for a drug company?" Bachmann demanded.
"It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them," Perry replied. "I raise about $30 million. If you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
It was the best political moment in weeks for the Minnesota congresswoman, who has struggled for attention ever since Perry joined the race last month. Bachmann's campaign had cast Monday's debate as a moment when their candidate would regain momentum.
The HPV issue is sure to play big with evangelicals and other social conservatives—especially in the first-caucus state of Iowa. But was unclear whether the exchange would help Bachmann to regain her status as a frontrunner in the GOP primary race, which has been dominated by the Romney vs. Perry showdown in recent weeks.
Indeed, Bachmann still struggled for attention at the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. Until the debate's final half hour, Bachmann was largely overshadowed, even by rivals Huntsman, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich—who received more questions tonight than in past debates.
Gingrich offered his best debate performance, at one point shifting the back and forth away from Romney and Perry's squabbles and to Republican attempts to defeat President Obama—which earned him enthusiastic applause from the tea party audience.
But it was Perry who seemed to face the most intensive scrutiny. Perry clearly seemed prepared for some of the questioning, including on Social Security, but he seemed a bit more ill at ease than he did during last week's New Hampshire debate. As his rivals fielded questions, the camera caught Perry looking toward the ceiling or fidgeting—a very different body language than that exhibited by Mitt Romney, who stared at his opponents as they answered questions.
But it's hard to say if Romney or other rivals did anything to derail Perry's steady rise in the polls. Only once did the crowd boo the Texas governor--and that was when Perry defended a law he passed in Texas that gave children of illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition at Texas universities, a measure that later inspired the federal DREAM Act backed by President Obama.
As the audience jeered, Perry insisted his legislation simply helps illegal immigrants become "contributing members of our society, rather than be on the dole."
"If you've been in the state of Texas for three years, and working toward citizenship, you pay in-state tuition," Perry declared. "It doesn't matter what the sound of your last name is. That's the American way."