Republican presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Sensing vulnerability, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum went after Rick Perry—hard—on his order, while governor of Texas, to force young girls to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus. In doing so, they sparked the sharpest exchange of the debate so far.
During the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Bachmann also accused Perry of favoring a large pharamceutical company, Merck, in pushing the program.
Perry said he made a mistake is issuing an executive order forcing the vaccinations, but he said he erred on the side of trying to prevent a deadly cancer.
“What was driving me obviously was making a difference in young people’s lives,” Perry said. “Cervical cancer is a terrible way to die.”
But Bachmann would have none of it. “Little girls don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do-over,” she said.
“This is big government run amok,” Santorum added. “This is a bad policy and shouldn’t have been done.”
"At the end of the day, you may criticze me about the way that I went about it," Perry said. "But I am always going to err on the side of life."
Bachmann noted that a former chief of staff for Perry became one of Merck’s top lobbyists in Texas and suggested that Perry steered the vaccination contract to the company in exchange for a campaign check.
"Was this about life or was it about million of dollars and potential billions for a drug company?" Bachmann demanded.
Perry said that Merck’s donation amounted to $5,000. “If you’re saying I can be bought by $5,000, I’m offended,” he growled.
“I’m offended by all the little girls who didn’t have a choice,” Bachmann snapped back, in the debate’s testiest moment to date.
“What we were about was trying to save young people in Texas,” Perry replied, clearly on the defensive.