SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The scrap between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney may have gotten more attention in Wednesday’s presidential candidates debate, but it was tame compared to the dust-up between Mr. Perry and Rep. Ron Paul, two Texans who apparently have spent plenty of time digging up dirt on each other and aren’t afraid to use it.
At one point when the video cameras weren’t rolling — though the incident was caught by still photographers — Mr. Perry walked over Mr. Paul’s lectern, took hold of the congressman’s wrist and wagged his finger at him.
A spokesman for Mr. Perry said Thursday it was a policy conversation, not a heated exchange.
“The governor and the congressman talked about border security. It was a cordial conversation,” said Mark Miner.
The two Texans, though, lost few opportunities to focus on one another in the debate.
The first shot was invited by the debate moderators, who asked Mr. Paul to expand on his accusations, made in recent days, that Mr. Perry, who has spent more than a decade as governor of Texas, is less conservative than voters think.
“Just take the HPV,” Mr. Paul said, referring to Mr. Perry’s scrapped plan to require schoolgirls in the state to be given a vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus. “Forcing 12-year-old girls to take an inoculation to prevent this sexually transmitted disease, this is not good medicine, I do not believe. I think it’s social misfit.”
Mr. Perry acknowledged he’d gone about the plan the wrong way when he tried to bypass the legislature, but said he’d been trying to combat cervical cancer, which can result from HPV, and said his plan would have allowed parents to opt out of the inoculation program.
Later, after Mr. Perry criticized the health care law Mr. Romney signed in Massachusetts, Mr. Paul jumped in and said Mr. Perry should worry about his own record, since he had written “a really fancy letter supporting Hillarycare” — the health program former first lady Hillary Clinton tried to enact in the 1990s.
Mr. Perry fired back, pointing to a letter Mr. Paul wrote in 1987 announcing he was dropping out of the the party he now seeks to lead because he was disappointed in then-President Reagan.
“Speaking of letters, I was more interested in the one that you wrote to Ronald Reagan back and said I’m going to quit the party because of the things you believe in,” Mr. Perry said.
He didn’t continue any further before Mr. Paul insisted on responding.
“I support the message of Ronald Reagan. The message was great. But the consequence — we have to be honest with ourselves — it was not all that great,” Mr. Paul said.
The attacks kept up even during the commercial breaks — and not just on stage. Mr. Paul had paid to run an ad during the MSNBC broadcast attacking Mr. Perry, pointing to his support for Al Gore’s presidential bid in the 1980s, including twice calling the governor a “cheerleader.”
“Al Gore found a cheerleader in Texas named Rick Perry,” the ad announcer intones.