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Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are introduced at a presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. (Joe Readle/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are introduced at a presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. (Joe Readle/Getty Images)

Konrad Yakabuski

Bachmann chips off some of Perry's right-wing varnish Add to ...

Rick Perry revved his motor. But when the Tea Party got around to peeking under the hood, all it found was a four-cylinder conservative.

The deflating discovery came via Michele Bachmann, who shifted into overdrive during Monday’s Republican presidential debate and ran all over the Texas Governor. No Tea Partier can look at him the same way now.

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Ms. Bachmann’s surprising motor skills redefined the meaning of a candidacy that had been fast slipping into irrelevancy. Her performance did not make her any more worthy of the nomination. But the doubts she raised about Mr. Perry’s conservative credentials made her his biggest menace.

Since entering the race in mid-August, Mr. Perry had shown all the subtlety of a Mack truck. Grassroots Republicans thought they had hit pay dirt. The party establishment may have seriously doubted Mr. Perry’s electability in a national election. But no one seemed willing to challenge the three-term Texas governor on the central conceit of his candidacy: He sold himself as the unassailable conservative and Mitt Romney as the fake.

Lost in this juxtaposition was Ms. Bachmann. The Minnesota congresswoman had always been more of a media creation than serious contender. But the cameras moved on when Mr. Perry entered the race. She had to do something to get Tea Party donors to keep sending her cash.

So, she went in for the kill Monday night. The debate, co-sponsored by national Tea Party groups, was not for vegetarians and Ms. Bachmann threw the crowd gathered in Tampa nothing but red meat.

Perhaps not enough to fill their bellies – after all, voices in the crowd uttered ‘yeah’ when the moderator asked whether a sick 30-year-old without private health insurance should be left to die – but enough to get some Tea Partiers wondering whether Mr. Perry is enough of a carnivore.

Ms. Bachmann attacked a 2007 executive order issued by Mr. Perry requiring girls entering the sixth grade in Texas to be vaccinated against the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer. The order was overturned by the state legislature.

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” she charged, hitting on the twin Tea Party taboos of Big Brother and puberty.

Smelling blood, she zeroed in on the “pay-to-play” culture Mr. Perry is criticized for encouraging in Texas, which does not limit campaign donations. The maker of the Gardasil vaccine employed Mr. Perry’s ex-chief of staff as a lobbyist and donated $5,000 to the governor.

Mr. Perry said he was “offended” by the suggestion he could be “bought” for only 5K. Ms. Bachmann did not miss a beat: “I’m offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice.”

Ms. Bachmann also hammered Mr. Perry over his decision to allow children brought to the United States illegally by their parents to pay in-state college tuition. Mr. Perry called it “the American way.”

“The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws,” she countered.

Despite having a good night, Ms. Bachmann is still on the fringes of the GOP. Granted, she has more company there since a boisterous cohort of Tea Partiers joined her in Congress in 2010. But that does not make her any more likely to win the nomination.

Her attacks on Mr. Perry may shore up her flagging support among some Tea Partiers. But their lasting impact is to get Republicans talking about Mr. Perry’s weaknesses. That aids one other candidate. It’s not her.

“She exposed Rick Perry’s weak flank,” Republican consultant Ron Bonjean noted in an interview. “In the end, it may help Mitt Romney.”

Going into the debate, Mr. Perry had two seemingly insurmountable advantages over the ex-Massachusetts governor. He had more right-wing cred and a glowing record of job creation in Texas.

If Ms. Bachmann chipped off some of Mr. Perry’s conservative varnish, Mr. Romney raised doubts about his role in the Texas miracle.

The key elements of the Texas model – oil wealth, no state income tax, no closed union shops and a GOP lock on the legislature – were in place before Mr. Perry came to office in 2000.

“If you’re dealt four aces,” Mr. Romney quipped, “that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player.”

Suddenly, the Texas governor is wearing fewer clothes.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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