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Did Bachmann wound front-runner Perry at CNN/Tea Party Debate?

By Jim Acosta, CNN Political Correspondent
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Bachmann takes on Perry over HPV order
  • Most of debate centers on Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- usually a sign a candidate is winning
  • Rep. Michele Bachmann goes after Perry on his HPV vaccine order for schoolgirls
  • Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney again attacks Perry on Social Security
  • Perry's status as GOP front-runner remains intact, at least for the moment

Tampa (CNN) -- Perhaps it was because Rep. Michele Bachmann was in her element at the CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate. With her campaign flagging, the founder of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress delivered a surprise body blow to the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Challenging Perry on his 2007 executive order that required Texas schoolgirls to receive vaccinations against the sexually transmitted HPV virus, Bachmann suggested the governor acted for purely political reasons.

"I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can't deny that," Bachmann said.

She went on to point out that at the time of the executive order, Perry's former chief of staff was a top lobbyist for Merck, the manufacturer for the HPV vaccine.

"The drug company gave thousand of dollars in political donations to the governor," Bachmann said. "And this is just flat-out wrong."

Fact check: Did Bachmann's drug lobbyist claims ring true?

The moment came as CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer was about to turn to former Sen. Rick Santorum for his take on the controversy. But Perry was given a chance to respond.

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"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," Perry replied.

Bachmann, who was reluctant to do battle in last week's debate in California, could have landed a knockout punch. She could have asked: "So governor, what is your price?" But she allowed the debate to move on.

Still, the congresswoman from Minnesota revived a long-running but largely overlooked complaint about Perry. Adversaries of the Texas governor have said for years he is a "crony capitalist."

Jim Hightower, the man Perry beat in his first statewide race for Texas agriculture commissioner, often says there are three ways to look at the state's longest-serving governor -- "cronyism, phonyism and goofyism."

Perry's allies can brush off Hightower. But not former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In her strongest indication yet she may enter the race for the GOP nomination, Palin strongly condemned Perry's actions in an interview on Fox News after the debate.

"This is crony capitalism. That's part of the problem we have in this country. People are afraid, even within our own party, to call one another out on that," Palin said.

Perry was in damage control for most of the night.

The first question of the debate came from a tea party activist who wanted to know how the candidates would change Social Security and sell the reforms to Florida's crucial senior citizen voters. But the opening round was really about the Texas governor, who has called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme."

Read more about whether Perry is conflicted on Social Security

"It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one's had the courage to stand up and say, 'Here is how we're going to reform it,' " Perry said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to pin down his arch rival on what exactly that overhaul would look like. "Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program?" Romney asked.

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"I think we ought to have a conversation," Perry replied.

"We're having that right now, governor. We're running for president," Romney shot back.

"And I'll finish this conversation," Perry answered.

Fact check: Is Social Security a "Ponzi scheme?'

For most of the night, the debate was about Perry. That's usually a sign a candidate is winning.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Santorum tried on several occasions to draw the Texas governor into their own rhetorical duels, to no avail.

That's usually a sign a candidate is losing.

"Let me say for Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment," Huntsman said.

It was an attempt to hit Perry on border security by resurrecting the Texas governor's controversial comment that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be guilty of treason if he took actions to stabilize the economy during an election cycle.

Perhaps it was too much for the audience to absorb.

Perry took his knocks. But his status as a front-runner was still intact, at least for the moment.

On Thursday, Perry is scheduled to visit Virginia. That's not a terribly important primary state for Republicans. But it is a crucial battleground in the general election, a sign of Perry's Texas-size confidence.

The trick for the rest of the GOP field is to convince Republican voters the race is not over yet.

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