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Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney in Tea Party debate on Social Security and HPV vaccine

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The Tea Party Republican debate turned into a brawl pretty fast on Monday night. Well aware of the momentum that Gov. Rick Perry has as the most media-analyzed Republican of the moment, candidates including Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann went after him on issues ranging from Social Security to the HPV vaccine.

Airing on CNN, the debate displayed more fierce competition than its time-period competitor, the season finale of Bachelor Pad on ABC and the Miss Universe pageant on NBC. That comparison is apt: These GOP contestants, so fiercely fixed on appealing to the Tea Party members in the audience who asked them questions, behaved like well-groomed models striving for just the right words, just the right glances and smiles, that would win over their viewers.

Perry pledged to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” He was heckled by Mitt Romney about his characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” Romney adding that this “scares” the American people. Jon Huntsman went pop-culture on the panel by asserting that “Gov. Romney called [Social Security] a fraud in his book No Apology — I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not — and then you’ve got Gov. Perry calling it a Ponzi scheme… we’re frightening the American people.” Americans including, one presumes, Courtney Love, if she happened to be watching Huntsman misquote the song title “All Apologies.”

Newt Gingrich scored a crowd-pleaser with a verbal bank-shot that managed to ding three targets: “I’m not particularly worried about Gov. Perry or Gov. Perry scaring the American people,” Gingrich said, “when President Obama scares them every day.” Oh, psych! Oh, was there a point he was making there? Oh, right: The President’s new jobs bill is terrible, don’tcha know…

The other subject that set the TV aflame was the HPV vaccine, administered to many school-children to prevent cervical cancer; HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. In Texas, Perry had been in favor of requiring the vaccine to be administered to girls in the sixth grade and up. He is certainly not the only governor to support this, but his opponents this night lit into him as though he was in favor of shooting up puppies with heroin.

Saying “cervical cancer is a terrible way to die,” Perry said he’d erred on the side of trying to prevent such deaths. Bachmann interpreted this as Perry doing a flip-flop, and said, “Little girls don’t get a mulligan; they don’t get a do-over.” While Rick Santorum said the program Perry once favored was “bad policy,” Bachmann went further, digging deeper into melodramatic, tangled syntax, asserting that she was “offended for all the little girls … who didn’t have a choice.” She said the vaccine “violates liberty… [with] 12 year-olds forced to have an injection into their body [sic].”

Even though it was moderated by Wolf “My Voice Is Making You Sleepy, Sleepy” Blitzer, the Tea Party debate made for some of the liveliest TV in this political season. And as I write, every media outlet with a working knowledge of Google is undoubtedly going haywire fact-checking all the dramatic economic, medical, and musical references that were made this night.

Twitter: @kentucker