Rep. Michelle Bachmann's two-pronged attack on Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Tuesday's GOP debate — accusing him of "crony capitalism" and usurping parents' rights in his ill-fated 2006 plan to vaccinate Texas schoolgirls against the HPV virus — could prove effective in raising doubts about the GOP front-runner among both tea party backers and social-religious conservatives, activists in both camps said.
Whether the potentially explosive HPV issue Mrs. Bachmann raised will permanently damage Mr. Perry's bid — and distract the GOP field from focusing on President Obama and his economic record — is another matter, one conservative activists of virtually all stripes seemed determined to avoid.
Knocked out of the first tier of candidates by Mr. Perry's entry into the race, the Minnesota congresswoman riled some Republican loyalists — and brought smiles to Democrats eager for campaign trail ammunition — when she hurled the twin charges against the Texas governor in Monday's spirited debate in Tampa.
Mr. Perry again conceded his executive order, mandating the inoculation of public-school girls against a particularly vicious, sexually transmitted disease unless a girl's parents declined to participate, was poorly conceived and met with strong public disapproval before being called off.
But he denied that he was practicing crony capitalism or was influenced by a $5,000 campaign contribution from the drug company that stood to benefit from the inoculation order. He noted he had raised $30 million in that same gubernatorial campaign.
"If you think I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Mr. Perry said.
But Mrs. Bachmann did not back down, replying, "Well, I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice."
How much the exchange will hurt the Republican front-runner was a hot topic of debate Wednesday.
"Crony capitalism is still better than socialism, which both the tea party and social conservatives strongly oppose," Andrew Ian Dodge, founder of the Maine Tea Party Patriots, told The Washington Times after the debate. "Granted, these are normally hot issues, but I don't think these are killer issues, not this time."
But others say the controversy raises doubts about Mr. Perry's conservative bona fides.
"Neither a $5,000 campaign contribution from Merck nor heavy-handedness on the HPV vaccine is likely to endure as a lasting issue, but they are reminders that Gov. Perry's conservative credentials are not without blemish," said Colin Hanna, founder of the religious advocacy group, Let Freedom Ring.
California tea party activist Nathan Mintz said the economy remains the dominant issue "and this Bachmann attack is not sticking," noting, as Mr. Perry has done, that parents could opt out of the inoculation order.
But he also acknowledged that an "opt-in" approach would more clearly have preserved parental powers.
"Tea partyers and social conservatives are not two mutually exclusive groups that need uniting," said Jason Hoyt, a member of Central Florida Tea Party Council.
"The tea party is made up of many groups of Americans that have decided to put our national fiscal issues first in the national discussion at this time."
As a result, Mr. Hoyt argued, "there are many social conservatives very much engaged in the tea party. And I would submit that the mandated vaccination issue isn't specifically a 'parental rights' issue. It's about the larger national conversation and awakening about the proper role of government."
Some of the most party's most visible social conservatives are bothered less by the pay-for-play allegation than by the inoculation issue. But even then, many say that the Texas governor remains the party's best bet for 2012 right now.
"The 'crony capitalism' charge has no basis and — for good reason — will not stick," said religious right leader Jim Garlow, chairman of Renewing America's Leadership. "However, conservatives are fundamentally unhappy with Perry's decision regarding HPV for the very reason Bachmann pointed out — that is, parental rights. Conservatives feel he was and is wrong on that issue."
"He made a mistake, which he admits, although his motivation was one we appreciate - protecting life," said constitutional scholar and Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford.
Mr. Perry has cultivated as personal relationship with the nation's leading social conservatives with a national prayer day and a meeting with 200 invited guests at the ranch of a Perry friend outside of Austin last month. Some now seem willing to go the extra mile for him.
"The only way that the executive-order issue will unite conservatives against Perry is if the debate never proceeds past sound-bites," said David Barton, president of the national pro-family organization WallBuilders.
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