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Republican presidential race: Rick Perry targeted by rivals in fierce Tampa debate

Rick Perry, the new Republican frontrunner, came under sustained attack last night with his rivals queuing up to take shots at him on state benefits, jobs, his Texas record and even the vaccination of young girls.

After opening up a significant poll lead in just over a month since declaring his candidacy, the Texas governor found himself the main target in a debate in Tampa, Florida hosted by CNN and Tea Party groups.

Mr Perry's principal antagonist was Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner. He said that Mr Perry's statements that Social Security was a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" was "over the top and unnecessary, and frightful to many people".

The Texan responded that Mr Romney was "trying to scare seniors" and it was "time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that programme".

Mr Romney said that Mr Perry was taking credit for things that happened in Texas that were really down to favourable conditions in the conservative state.

"If you're dealt four aces, that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player."

Mr Perry hit back: "Mitt, you were doing pretty good till you got to talking poker. But the fact is the state of Texas has led the nation. While the current resident of the White House has overseen the loss of 2.5 million jobs, Texas has during my period as a governor created over a million jobs."

The Texas governor was also attacked by Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favourite who won the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa last month, on the day Mr Perry entered the race, but began to fade almost immediately.

When Mr Perry said he had mandated the use of a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer because he erred "on the side of life", Mrs Bachmann suggested he was guilty of corruption by taking money from drug companies.

"The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?" Mr Perry responded: "I raised about $30 million, and if you're saying that I can be bought for 5,000, I'm offended."

Mrs Bachmann stuck to her guns, leaving Mr Perry looking stunned. "Well, I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. That's what I'm offended for."

Mr Romney vowed to return the bronze bust of Winston Churchill, fashioned by Sir Jacob Epstein, that was loaned by the British government to President George W. Bush in 2001 but returned by President Barack Obama in 2009.

"One of my heroes was a man who had an extraordinary turn of phrase. He once said about us -- he said, you know, you can count on the Americans to get things right -- after they've exhausted all the alternatives," he said.

"And now and then, we've made a couple of mistakes, but we're quite a quite a nation. And this man, Winston Churchill, used to have his bust in the Oval Office, and if I'm president of the United States, it'll be there again."