TAMPA, Fla. -- Republican presidential candidates squared off Monday night in the first debate ever organized by a major Tea Party group.
The Social Security tag team match moved into round two in Tampa, with the two Republican front-runners, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, picking up where they left off.
Romney wasted no time homing in on Perry's claim that Social Security is like a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. He planted doubts that the GOP front-runner might want to eliminate the program.
"The term 'Ponzi scheme' is what scared seniors, number one," Romney said. "And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening."
Who one, who lost? Dr. Paul Bonicelli, executive vice president of Regent University, gave his analysis of the Republican debate.
Perry quickly moved to dispel that notion.
"The people on Social Security today need to understand something: slam dunk guarantee--that program is going to be there for them when they arrive there," the Texas governor said.
Others Weigh In
The other GOP candidates were then asked to enter the "entitlement" ring.
"I'm not particularly worried about Gov. Perry and Gov. Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, when asked whether he sided with Perry or Romney, rejoined, "Well, the question is who is with me?"
Businessman Herman Cain, not wanting to get hung up on semantics, said "I don't care what you call it, it's broken."
"All I know, Wolf, is that we're frightening the American people who just want solutions," former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman replied to CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer's question.
Another contentious moment between Perry and Romney came over job creation.
"I believe Gov. Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player," Romney said, responding to the favorable conditions Texas already has for job growth.
"Mitt you were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker," Perry shot back. "But the fact is the state of Texas has led the nation."
"Does your governor deserve all that credit?" the debate moderator asked Sen. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
"Not quite," Paul responded.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Santorum aggressively teamed up against the Texas governor for requiring the government to vaccinate sixth grade girls against HPV, a sexual transmitted disease known to cause cancer.
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong," Bachmann charged.
"This is big government run amok," Santorum said. "It is bad policy, and it should not have been done."
Perry acknowledged the vaccine mandate had been a mistake, saying, "On that particular issue, I made a mistake by not going to the legislature first."
Not satisfied, Bachmann then questioned Perry over his ties to the vaccine maker, Merck.
"The governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company," she noted.
"It was a $5,000, it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry responded, drawing applause.
"Well, I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice," Bachmann said.
Caution from Tea Party
Earlier in the day, Tea Party groups made it clear what they're looking for in a candidate.
"You can get up here tonight in the debate hall and you can spar with each other, but when it comes down to it, we're looking for a leader that has courage, conviction, principles and will stand up for the constitution of the United States, and will declare our freedoms again," said Billie Tucker, executive director of the First Coast Tea Party.
The fact that this debate was sponsored and shaped by the Tea Party Express shows just how far this movement has come in shaping the political discourse in the country.
It remains to be seen how far the Republican candidates will go to court the Tea Party's favor without alienating other factions in the GOP.