Attacked from all sides, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a snarky campaign debate Monday night and fended off attacks on his record creating jobs and requiring the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.
It marked the first time in the summer debates that internal Republican differences dominated rather than a common eagerness to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Early questioning involved several sharp exchanges about Social Security.
"A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away," said Perry.
He said retirees and near-retirees are assured of receiving the benefits they've been promised — and should be — but changes are needed to make sure younger workers have any sort of benefit when they near retirement.
'Over the top' Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney responded by saying that Perry is scaring seniors with his rhetoric. He called Perry's characterization of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme "over the top" and "frightful."
He hammered Perry to answer whether he still questions if Social Security should be a federal program, recalling statements the Texas governor made in his recent book, "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington."
Perry remarked that Romney called the program "criminal." To loud audience applause, a smiling Perry quipped, "That's in your book."
"You've got to quote me correctly," Romney responded. "What I said was taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is criminal and it's wrong."
At last week's NBC News/POLITICO debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the two rivals shared similar barbs over the program.
Gingrich gets standing ovation Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received the debate's first standing ovation following that Perry/Romney exchange. He joked that he's not worried about the two frontrunners scaring Americans, because Obama "scares them every day."
It was clear that the presidential hopefuls were not only eager to court support from the most conservative voters but were anxious not to offend seniors and others who depend on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
None of the three who have gotten the most support so far this year — Perry, Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — said they favored repealing the prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which has a large unfunded liability.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, asked the same question, turned his answer to a call for ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ways to save money.
Things also got testy between Perry and Romney over job creation. The former Massachusetts governor said Perry shouldn't get all the credit for job growth in the Lone Star state. "If you're dealt four aces, that doesn't necessarily make you a great poker player."
Romney contended that Texas enjoys advantages other states lack, such as oil and a Republican legislature. He also noted that Perry's predecessors in the Texas governor's mansion had higher percentages of job creation.
Perry said that he deserves many of the accolades, touting tort reform in his state. "While the country lost over two million jobs ... Texas gained over a million jobs." He boasted, "Tell the trial lawyers to get out ... That has to happen in states and at the federal level."
Bachmann also shared a tense moment with Perry over an executive order he signed requiring a vaccine for young girls in Texas to prevent cervical cancer.
Bachmann, whose candidacy surged and then fell back in the polls in less than a month, said that "to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest."
She brought up a donation that the Texas governor received from Gardasil manufacturer Merck & Co., and noted that former Perry staffer went to work for the drugmaker as a lobbyist.
"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," Perry retorted.
"I'm offended for the little girls who don't have a choice," she snapped back.
Perry said he'd do things differently if he could, but at the time, "this was about trying to stop a cancer." He added, "I am always going to err on the side of life."
The two also sparred over the subject of illegal immigration, with Perry defending Texas' stance on offering in-state tuition to students who have lived there for at least three years and are working toward citizenship.
He called it a "states' rights issue" and said it prevents illegal immigrants from being "on the government dole."
"It doesn't matter what the sound of your last name is. That's the American way," said Perry.
The audience booed the governor, but cheered Bachmann's hard-line response. She likened Perry's efforts in Texas to the federal DREAM Act.
"I think the American way is not to give taxpayer benefits to people who are here" illegally, she said.
There was a brief letup in the crossfire when the subject of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke — no favorite of Republicans — came up.
Perry stood behind his recent comments that it would be treasonous if the Fed were printing money for political reasons. Romney let it pass, as did the others on stage
Perry, a conservative Tea Party favorite, has zoomed past Romney to lead in opinion polls since entering the race last month for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in 2012.
But Romney got a boost on Monday with the endorsement of Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in last month's Iowa straw poll, an early test of campaign strength.
Like Romney, Pawlenty based his campaign on his ability to appeal to the more moderate voters needed to win a general election. Perry's run to the top of Republican polls has been powered by his strength with social and religious conservatives.
Perry, the governor of Texas, called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" during last week's debate.
, Perry said on Monday the goal should be fixing Social Security by making it more financially sustainable for the long-term.
"We must have a frank, honest national conversation about fixing Social Security to protect benefits for those at or near retirement while keeping faith with younger generations who are being asked to pay," he said.
Other candidates who participated in Monday's debate were: Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
The Tampa, Fla., debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express advocacy group, unfolded in the very city where Republicans will gather next summer to bestow the party nomination on a challenger to Obama.
The debate was the fifth of the Republican presidential campaign. It will be followed by another debate next week in Orlando, Fla.