By Paul West, Washington Bureau
September 12, 2011, 10:05 p.m.

Reporting from Tampa, Fla.— In backhanded recognition of his front-runner status, Texas Gov. Rick Perry came under sharp criticism from his Republican presidential rivals in a “tea party” debate Monday night for promoting tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and ordering young girls to be inoculated against a sexually transmitted disease.

The governor, who leads by double-digit margins in early polls, was on the defensive for much of the evening. But he shrugged off most of the attacks with folksy retorts and a bemused look, and he stuck to his guns on the issue that has trailed him since his first national debate appearance last week: Social Security.

Perry, who has described the federal retirement program as “a Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie” to younger Americans, tried to move beyond that argument. He offered a “slam-dunk” guarantee to current beneficiaries and those “moving towards” retirement that he wouldn’t favor changing the program for them. But he also vowed to transform Social Security, possibly by returning portions of the program to the states.

That prompted a sharp exchange with Mitt Romney, the former front-runner, after Perry said he wanted to have “a conversation” with voters about the issue.

“We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president,” interjected Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who described Perry’s words as “frightful to many people.”

The two-hour forum — the most contentious thus far in the 2012 campaign — marked a revival of sorts for Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy has suffered as Perry’s has taken off over the past month. The two are competing for many of the same conservative votes, but last night the Minnesota congresswoman appeared to have won the hearts of many in the crowd of tea party activists.

She drew cheers for a rally-style attack on “Obamacare” — the president’s federal healthcare overhaul — and for her attack on Perry’s controversial decision to order vaccinations in Texas against the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

Perry said that his 2007 executive order had been a mistake. But he was unable to resist the urge to defend his decision.

Bachmann called Perry’s actions “flat-out wrong” and “a violation of a liberty interest,” and went on to liken his executive order to “government dictates” like those in the Obama healthcare law.

Bachmann also suggested that Perry’s order was made in response to a campaign donation from Merck, the maker of the vaccine Gardasil, which had hired Perry’s former chief of staff as its lobbyist in Austin, the state capital.

“It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” responded Perry. “I raise about $30 million, and if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

Bachmann shot back, to cheers from the invited audience at the Florida State Fairgrounds, that she was “offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice.”

Perry drew scattered boos when he defended his decision to sign a law providing in-state tuition at public colleges in Texas to children of illegal immigrants.

“The bottom line is, it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way,” said Perry. “I’m proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, ‘You go be on the government dole.’ ”

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