WASHINGTON -- What looked initially like a winning debate point for Michele Bachmann has prompted a chorus of protest against the Minnesota Republican, with some of the most scathing comments coming from her fellow conservatives.
Now a University of Minnesota scientist and his former boss are offering more than $10,000 in rewards if the story Bachmann told after Monday's GOP presidential debate in Tampa about a vaccine causing mental disability can be verified.
Bachmann sparked the controversy by telling Fox News and "The Today Show" that a woman came up to her after the debate and said that her daughter's mental disability had been caused by a vaccination against HPV, the human papilloma virus. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.
The Minnesota congresswoman appeared to have scored points against Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the debate by attacking him for issuing an executive order that required sixth-grade girls to receive the vaccine. Bachmann called it "flat out wrong" to force girls to get a "government injection."
Afterward, she continued to press that issue in televised comments.
"There's a woman that came up crying to me tonight after the debate," Bachmann told Fox News. "She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She said her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine."
Later, on Sean Hannity's radio show, Bachmann said she had "no idea" if the HPV vaccine was linked to mental disability. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician," she said. "All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me last night at the debate."
But it was too late to stop the blowback.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said of Bachmann's claim: "There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement."
Some conservative writers piled on, with one calling the statement "beyond ridiculous,'' on the National Review website. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that Bachmann may have "jumped the shark'' with the story.
University of Minnesota bioethicist Steve Miles is now offering $1,000 if the woman Bachmann described comes forward with medical proof that her daughter was left mentally disabled because of the vaccination. Art Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics and Miles' former boss at the U, went further -- offering $10,000 if the woman's claim is verified.
"These types of messages in this climate have the capacity to do enormous public health harm," Miles said of why he made the offer. "It's an extremely serious claim and it deserves to be analyzed."
Miles and Caplan said they are prepared to pay should the medical records be released.
Nearly lost in the noise was Bachmann's initial accusation of "crony capitalism" against Perry. At the debate he told her that vaccine maker Merck had given him $5,000. "If you're saying I can be bought off for $5,000 ... I'm offended," he said.
In fact, Perry received nearly $30,000 from Merck before signing the order, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Perry took advantage of the outcry Wednesday, telling reporters after a Virginia fundraiser that Bachmann's claim of ties between mental disability and the vaccination had "no basis in fact."
Bachmann's former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, who now serves in an advisory role, said she had erred.
"The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on, the better," Rollins said on MSNBC.
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb