By CHARLES BABINGTON
TAMPA, Fla. - Attacked from all sides, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a snarky campaign debate Monday night and fended off attacks on his record creating jobs and requiring the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.
Across a crackling two-hour debate, the front-runner in opinion polls gave little ground and jabbed back, particularly at his most persistent critic, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But the attacks were sustained - from Romney on Social Security, Texas Rep. Ron Paul saying Perry had raised taxes, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Senate Rick Santorum assailing the governor's executive order to require Texas schoolgirls to get a STD vaccine.
"A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away," Perry said in the debate's opening moments as Romney pressed him on his earlier statements questioning the constitutionality of Social Security and calling it a Ponzi scheme.
The Texas governor counter-attacked quickly, accusing Romney of "trying to scare seniors" with his own comments on a program that tens of millions of Americans - including millions in the debate state of Florida alone - rely on for part or all of their retirement income.
The eight rivals shared a debate stage for the second time in less than a week, a pace that marked a quickening in the campaign to choose a challenger to President Barack Obama in 2012. The encounter was sponsored by tea party groups - the conservative voters who propelled the GOP to victory in the 2010 congressional elections, and by CNN.
For the first time in this summer's GOP debates, internal Republican differences dominated rather than a common eagerness to unseat Obama.
There was no doubt which side the debate audience was on, though. Santorum drew loud applause when he said the current economy "would have to make a dramatic improvement just to be a disaster."
The debate unfolded in the city where Republicans will gather next summer to bestow the party nomination on a challenger to Obama.
Bachmann said she had "brought the voice of the tea party to the United States Congress as a founder of the tea party caucus."
Perry said he was glad to be at the debate with the Tea Party Express.
But it soon became clear that the presidential hopefuls were not only eager to court support from the most conservative voters but were anxious not to offend seniors and others who depend on Social Security and Medicare.
None of the three who have gotten the most support so far this year - Perry, Romney and Bachmann - said they favored repealing the prescription drug benefit in Medicare, which has a large unfunded liability. Paul, asked the same question, turned his answer to a call for ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ways to save money.
Associated Press writers Bruce Smith in South Carolina and Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.