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TAMPA, FLA. - Michele Bachmann climbed back into the GOP presidential conversation on Monday, ramping up her attacks on GOP rivals Rick Perry and Mitt Romney in a Florida debate.
Perry and Romney still dominated much of the conversation at the CNN-Tea Party Express debate, as they challenged each other's rhetoric on job creation and Social Security, which Perry has called "a Ponzi scheme." But Bachmann found her spots to push back -- hard.
Bachmann came into Monday's debate needing to weaken Perry, the Texas governor who has taken a big bite out of her Tea Party support in the past month.
It was a key opportunity for Bachmann after being largely ignored in last week's debate, the first to include Perry.
The Minnesota congresswoman knocked Perry for requiring teenage girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease and attacked Romney for the health care plan he instituted as governor of Massachusetts.
When Perry admitted "he made a mistake" by signing the executive order, Bachmann quickly went on the offensive.
"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 said. "It should never be done."
After Perry defended the vaccine as protecting against cancer, Bachmann pointed out that a drug company with ties to Perry made millions from the executive order.
In a sign that the attack line was planned, Bachmann's campaign had a press release ready accusing Perry of "crony capitalism."
"If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry said.
"I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice," Bachmann shot back.
Perry takes fire
Just like the last debate, Romney and Perry concentrated their fire on each other.
They traded sharp attacks over Social Security, an issue that has dominated the political conversation since Perry called it a "Ponzi scheme" last week.
"The question is do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out?" Romney asked Perry.
"I think we ought to have that conversation," Perry said, before Romney cut him off.
"We're having that conversation right now, governor," Romney shot back. "We're running for president."
On jobs, Romney said that Perry's good record was largely the product of good fortune.
"I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player," Romney said of Texas laws and economic conditions.
"You were doing pretty good 'til you got talking about poker," Perry responded.
After shooting to the top of the polls since entering the race a month ago, Perry had to withstand the most attacks from his GOP rivals at the debate.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul hit the governor for raising taxes in the Lone Star State before throwing in a barb.
"I don't want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something," Paul said.
Perry stood by his comment that Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke would be committing a treasonous action by printing more money, which Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman used to attack on immigration.
"For Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment," Huntsman said.
Down in polls
As in previous debates, Bachmann was most passionate when talking about President Obama's health care law. This time, she also directly attacked Romney for his state's law that included an individual mandate for purchasing health insurance.
"If you believe that states can have it and that it's constitutional, you're not committed," Bachmann said of the mandate.
"If you've implemented this in your state, you're not committed. I'm committed to repealing 'Obamacare.'"
Bachmann attempted to paint herself as the harshest critic of the president's health law, claiming he "stole" $500 billion from Medicare for his health plan.
The remark prompted a response from Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who told CNN after the debate that the law "added eight years of solvency to Medicare."
Despite Bachmann's recent drop in the polls-- she was at 4 percent in a CNN/ORC poll released Monday -- she said after the debate that she isn't done in the race.
"We're not at the end -- this is a marathon," she told CNN. "These things change. That's why these debates are so important."
After last week's debate, Bachmann press secretary Alice Stewart said that Bachmann's aggressiveness was an attempt to highlight the candidates' differences.
"She didn't go into this debate and she goes into none of the debates with the mindset of cutting the others off at the knees," Stewart said in the post-debate "spin room."
"But this was an opportunity for her to show a stark contrast."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb