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Perry, Romney Clash in GOP Debate

Updated from 9:38 p.m. ET to include comments on defense and the military.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Social Security, the Federal Reserve and defense spending were hot topics on Monday night as the Tea Party hosted its first-ever GOP presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney quickly butted heads.

Perry, the current leader in the polls, has had one of the more controversial stances on the program, calling it a Ponzi scheme, and he continued to articulate his opposition on Monday, saying Americans need to recognize the current system is broken and that the government needs to tell people the truth.

Romney, who's in second place, said that Perry hasn't offered up much of substance, and has frightened seniors more than anything else, sparking a contentious exchange between the pair.

"I think we ought to have a conversation," Perry said. Romney immediately cut in, though, saying: "We're having that conversation right now, governor."

Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain again offered up his plan to fund retirement with private accounts, describing it as similar to a Chilean plan.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received roaring approval when he played off the skirmish between Perry and Romney. Gingrich said that he was not worried about the two front-runners frightening the American people when President Barack Obama, he said, frightens citizens every day.

The debate turned toward the candidates' plans to stimulate the economy. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, and Romney reiterated economic plans they had revealed over the past two weeks. Romney talked about his seven-step map that includez a reformed tax code, a balanced budget and a focus on human capital, or jobs.

Huntsman said that under his leadership Utah led the U.S. in job creation with growth of more than 5%, and that it was the most business-friendly location for American entrepreneurs.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) turned the topic of the economy toward the Federal Reserve and said that if she were elected president she wouldn't reappoint Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bachmann went on to say that the central bank has had too much power over the economy.

Perry, who made controversial comments about Bernanke last month, said that the United States needed to support a strong Federal Reserve. Romney echoed the same belief.

Perry came under fire again when the topic of executive orders was mentioned. He took heat in last week's debate when pressed about an order he tried to pass in Texas that would have required young females to receive inoculation for the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Perry admitted that he made a mistake with the issue, but Bachmann refused to let the governor set aside the topic. She said that government mandates were flat-out wrong. Bachmann then said that a particular drug company would have made money off the inoculation program, and that Perry's chief of staff was a leading lobbyist for the company.

Perry acknowledged the company Bachmann was referring to was Merck (MRK) and said he had received a $5,000 contribution from Merck.

"If you say I can be bought for $5,000, then I'm offended," Perry said. Bachmann said she felt offended for the girls who he wanted to force to be inoculated.

On the topic of defense, the candidates offered varied perspectives. Gingrich argued that the United States needed to reform the Homeland Security Department. He said Homeland Security was not equipped to handle the problems that have plagued national security. Gingrich felt that the U.S. was not prepared for what would happen if someone slipped a nuclear device into the country, which was an argument he raised in the last debate. He also said that the country hadn't seriously considered the nation's more immediate security threat of the civil war in Mexico.

Paul distinguished between defense spending and military spending. The Texas congressman said that there was a lot of room to cut on the military, but not on defense. He argued that military spending included the construction and purchase of airplanes to use in war and the 900 U.S. military bases used to, as Paul believed, "police" the world. Paul added that Americans had to protect themselves at home, but that the U.S. needed to avoid nation building.

Huntsman said that it would be important for the United States to get out of Afghanistan, but Perry countered that "it's important for us to have a presence there." Perry said it would be best to make sure that the United States did what was necessary for Afghanis to take care of themselves before America withdrew its troops.

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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