Last night’s debate turned into a fine donnybrook at times, as the candidates took off the gloves and started landing a few blows.  As one would expect, and as many of us expected for last week’s debate, most of the Republicans on stage took aim at the undisputed front-runner, Rick Perry, and this time they scored points.  Perry remained cool under fire, but two issues may have lost him a few Tea Party voters in the audience.  Will it have an impact, or will Perry maintain his momentum as he did after his initial foray into the fire?

Perry actually did well in the initial attack.  This time, Mitt Romney didn’t wait for the moderators to ping-pong questions and follow-ups between himself and Perry but started directly asking Perry questions about his writings on Social Security.  Romney wanted to press the Texas governor on whether he still thought the program was “unconstitutional,” but Perry delivered a big body blow when he brought up Romney’s own written claim that the funding system for Social Security was akin to a criminal enterprise, which left Romney sputtering and trying to parse the meaning of the word “criminal.”

But two other issues tripped Perry up.  When a Tea Party question about the Gardasil HPV vaccine came up, Perry admitted again that he had made a mistake in issuing his executive order for mandatory vaccination, reminding people that it did include a parental opt-out.  Romney was notably silent on this issue, but Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum hammered Perry on the very notion of an EO that forced parents into an opt-out, rather than offering an opt-in.  Bachmann, who had a restrained performance last week, ended up sounding as if she was opposed to mandatory vaccinations in general, while Santorum was clear that the government only had an interest in mandating prevention for diseases easily communicable in classroom settings.

However, Bachmann became the first candidate to go after Perry on his connections to Merck, the manufacturer of Gardasil — a very fair point, and one for which Perry should have been prepared.  Instead, Perry seemed rattled, finally offering a defense that the notion that he could be bought for $5000 “offends” him.  My Twitter feed exploded with the obvious question: well, how much does it take?

The other issue that tripped Perry was, predictably, immigration — specifically the Texas law that allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state rather than out-of-state tuition.  Perry defended the law, noting that it had almost no dissent in the state legislature, and that it kept a number of young adults from drifting onto the “government dole.”  But Perry lost several opportunities to refute the notion that these students were getting free access to universities and/or not paying tuition at all.  Perry also tried to draw a distinction between his law and the federal DREAM act opposed by the GOP, but other than the states-rights basis didn’t come up with any substantive difference between the two.  The Tea Party audience booed his defense at times, which isn’t a good sign.

Overall, Perry improved his delivery, but that didn’t keep him from having a tougher time in this debate.  Like last week, Perry’s energy seemed to flag in the second half before catching a second wind near the end.  And while the issues that allowed his opponents to score points have been known for quite a while, Perry seemed strangely unprepared for the attack, perhaps most on Gardasil and Merck.

Romney didn’t have the same problems as Perry; his vulnerabilities have been well known and well exploited, and Romney knows how to respond to them.  The audience gave Perry a big response when he blew up Romney’s attempts to paint him as an extreme voice on Social Security.  His “Texas had four aces” line fell flat, especially after Perry reminded the audience that his job growth included the period during and after the recession; after that, Romney didn’t go on the attack.  He reverted back to his above-the-fray approach to the debate, perhaps deliberately so after it became clear that Bachmann and Santorum would do the heavy lifting on the Perry attacks.

Bachmann finally got aggressive and distinguished herself over the Gardasil/Merck issue, and also with good responses on Social Security and ObamaCare.  However, the Gardasil/Merck exchange highlighted her predilection for taking a real issue and both overpersonalizing and overreacting to it.  Her comments during and after the debate left the distinct impression that Bachmann opposes all vaccination requirements, a position that is far out of the mainstream — and not really a federal issue in the first place.  Santorum scored the best points on the issue because he didn’t make it into a personal attack and very clearly stated why HPV was different than measles or mumps.

The rest of the field had good moments, but the main show was between Perry, Romney, and Bachmann.  It should be noted that Jon Huntsman offered up one tone-deaf moment after another, and drew boos after calling Perry “treasonous” on border security in a joke that backfired badly (Perry laughed, though).  He made a “Kirk Cobain” joke about Romney’s book that likewise left the audience wondering what in hell Huntsman was thinking.  His answer on Afghanistan meandered from ordering a troop withdrawal all the way to allowing Afghan women to shine with no real connecting thread.  If Huntsman remains in this race for another week after last night’s debate, it won’t be because he’s making any new friends among Republicans.

If I had to pick a winner from the debate, it would probably be Romney, who limited the damage to himself and benefited from the pile-on his other opponents conducted on Perry.  Perry needs to step up his game, and Bachmann has to work harder to find the line between aggressive response and wildness.

Addendum: I thought the debate format and presentation was actually quite good last night.  The questions didn’t seem to be derived from White House talking points, and the Tea Party format worked well. Wolf Blitzer allowed the candidates to directly engage one another, and didn’t insert any ridiculous bits into the debate; remember John King’s “This or That”?  We spent a good portion of the evening on entitlement reform, which Fox missed completely in the Ames debate.  There were some legitimate issues, including the fact that it took ten minutes to finally ask the first question, and the last silly question could have been replaced by a short closing statement.  Those seem minor, though, especially considering what we’ve seen this summer.