CNN —  

There may be no more foul four-letter word in the Republican presidential race than TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program passed in 2008 to bail out the tottering U.S. financial system. And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who runs far at the back of the GOP pack in most polls, dropped it on the front-runners in Tuesday night’s CNN debate in Las Vegas.

“The problem is, in the first place, is that several people up here – the, quote, businesspeople – supported the TARP, supported the bailout,” Santorum said. He included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry among its supporters, prompting Perry to interject, “Wrong.”

Both Romney and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who has recently jumped to the front of the GOP field, are on record supporting the bailouts. Both have said since then that the program was poorly executed. But what about Perry?

Well, it seems there’s a bit of fancy footwork involved.

On October 1, 2008, two days after the House of Representatives voted down the Bush administration’s rescue bill, the Senate was voting on a modified version of the bailout package. And the chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican governors associations sent a joint letter to Congress that day, urging them “to stand together for our country.”

“As leaders of our respective organizations, we don’t always see eye to eye on policy, but we come together today with one clear purpose. We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economic recovery package,” the letter stated.

It was signed by then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, the head of the Democratic Governors Association at the time, and Perry, Manchin’s GOP counterpart.

“There is a time for partisanship and there is a time for getting things done. No one likes the hand they’ve been dealt, and now is not the time to assign blame,” they wrote. “It is time for Washington, D.C. to step up, be responsible and do what’s in the best interest of American taxpayers and our economy.”

But the same day, Perry issued a statement from his office in Austin in which he criticized the measure.

“In a free market economy, government should not be in the business of using taxpayer dollars to bail out corporate America,” he said. “Congress needs to take off its partisan gloves and work together to bring both short and long term stability to the credit markets. They need to stop blaming each other and start thinking about solutions that put the taxpayers of this country first.”

Perry said Tuesday night that he and Manchin weren’t writing to support the bailout.

“The fact is, Rick just has that wrong,” he said. “We wrote a letter to Congress asking them to act. What we meant by acting was, cut the regulations, cut the taxation burden, not passing TARP.”

The three-paragraph Perry-Manchin letter made no mention of taxes or regulations, but warned Congress that the financial crisis was threatening Americans “across the country and in every demographic.”

“If Congress does not act soon, the situation will grow appreciably worse. It’s time for leadership. Congress needs to act now,” they wrote. And as Santorum noted, “There was only one plan, and that was the plan that was voted on the floor. It was TARP.”

The verdict:

True, but incomplete. Perry did urge Congress to “pass an economic recovery package,” and there was only one such package on the table in those turbulent days. But at the same time, he was taking swipes at the measure back home.

CNN’s Lindsey Knight contributed to this report.