TAMPA, Fla. – With a new poll showing Rick Perry the clear frontrunner in the hunt for the Republican presidential nomination, the Texas governor came under heavy fire from his GOP challengers last night, nearly being accused of treason at one point during the first-ever tea-party debate.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry stand side by side in the first-ever tea-party debate, held in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 12, 2011.

The allegation came from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who complained about Perry’s opposition to building a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“For Rick to say that you can’t secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment,” Huntsman said.

His remark came after Perry himself echoed a previous treason-related thought on a completely different subject, the Federal Reserve.

“I said that, if you are allowing the Federal Reserve to be used for political purposes, that it would be almost treasonous. I think that is a very clear statement of fact,” Perry said during the debate.

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With CNN broadcasting the event both nationally and internationally, eight contenders squared off against each other in the host city for the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Besides Perry and Huntsman, the participants included Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Questions came not only from those on hand in Tampa, but also from tea-party members at debate-watch parties in Phoenix, Ariz., Portsmouth, Va., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Perry was continually hammered by the other contestants not only on illegal immigration, but also Social Security and his 2007 executive order to vaccinate schoolgirls in Texas against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer.

“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls to be forced to have government injections through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” Bachmann said.

Santorum also took aim at Perry’s inoculation push.

“This is big government run amok,” Santorum said, receiving applause from those in attendance. “It is bad policy and it should not have been done.”

Perry said he regretted his decision to push for the vaccine using an executive order, but said he was standing up against cancer.

“At the end of the day I am always going to err on the side of life,” Perry said. “At the end of the day this was about trying to solve cancer.”

When CNN host Wolf Blitzer pointed out Perry’s success in job creation in the Lone Star State, Romney claimed it was not necessarily the governor’s doing, as Texas has no state income tax, a good supply of oil and a Republican-controlled legislature and supreme court.

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

Perry responded, “You were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker.”

Perhaps the funniest line of the night came from Santorum, who said to laughter, “Some people say that Barack Obama’s economy is a disaster. My feeling is it would have to make a dramatic improvement just to be a disaster.”

Santorum also got into a spat with Ron Paul over the reasons why the U.S. was attacked on 9/11.

“On your website, yesterday, you said that it was our actions that brought about the actions of 9/11,” said Santorum. “Now, Congressman Paul, that is irresponsible. The president of the United States, someone who is running for the president of the United States in the Republican Party should not be parroting what Osama bin Laden said on 9/11.

“We were attacked,” he continued, “because we have a civilization that is antithetical to the civilization of the jihadists. And they want to kill us because of who we are and what we stand for.”

Paul fired back, “As long as this country follows that idea, we’re going to be under a lot of danger. This whole idea that the whole Muslim world is responsible for this, and they’re attacking us because we’re free and prosperous, that is just not true. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida have been explicit … they wrote and said that we attacked America because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia, you do not give Palestinians fair treatment … ”

Some in the audience booed Paul’s response.

When it comes to saving Social Security, Newt Gingrich offered two approaches.

“The first is, you get back to a full employment economy, and at four percent unemployment you have such a huge increase in funding, that you change every single out year of projection in a positive way,” he said.

“The second is you say precisely as several folks here have said it, if you are younger, everybody who is older and wants to be totally protected, fine, no change. So don’t let anybody lie to you, starting with the president. No change. But if you’re younger and you would like a personal account, you would control instead of the politicians. And you know you’ll have more money at the end of your lifetime if you control it than the politicians.”

Cain, the former chairman of Godfather’s Pizza, focused on the trouble with the U.S. economy, saying it “is on life support.”

“We need a bold solution, not one that tinkers around the edges, not one that allows politicians to continue to pick winners and losers. I believe we throw out the entire tax code and put in my nine-nine-nine plan. Nine nine nine. A 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 national sales tax. Now I’ve been told by some people, well, you can’t get that done. I say why? Well, because you don’t know how Washington works. Yes, I do. It doesn’t.”

Cain concluded with a lighthearted quote, saying, “I would bring a sense of humor to the White House, because America’s too uptight.”

Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of Tea Party Express, was thrilled with the rise of the tea party’s influence.

“What’s so great about this movement is that it’s just everyday people,” she said. “We simply love this country and are concerned about what is going on in Washington, D.C., and we realize we cannot spend our way out of debt.”

“Finally, the media is paying attention, and they get it,” she added.

It was a day of political endorsements before the debate, as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Perry.

“Governor Perry’s not the kind of guy that sticks his finger out in the wind and sees which way the polls are going,” Jindal said. “It really is about executive experience and leadership.”

Meanwhile, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who ended his own GOP presidential quest following the Iowa Straw Poll, endorsed Romney.

Asked if he didn’t like his fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty said, “It’s not that I don’t like her. I know her and respect her, but when you look at the skills and experience needed to lead this country toward more job growth, more economic opportunity which we desperately need and you look at the skills and experience in the private sector that we need in the next president, Mitt Romney uniquely stands above this field.”

When pressed about whether he would consider being Romney’s running mate, Pawlenty said, “I’m not going to open that door. I’m going to say I’m not interested in that. That’s not something I’m even going to consider. Let’s just set that aside. I’m working for Gov. Romney because I believe he’ll be the best president, and I’m sure as he thinks about vice-presidential options, he’ll have a lot of great choices, but one of them won’t be me.”

Also before the debate, a new national poll indicated Perry was maintaining his lead in the race for the nomination. 

The CNN survey showed 30 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP support Perry for their party’s nomination, with Romney at 18 percent.

“Perry’s support comes mostly from Republicans who support the tea-party movement, although he has a statistically insignificant edge among non-tea-party Republicans as well,” said Keating Holland, polling director for CNN.

Ron Paul, who’s making his third run for the White House, is at 12 percent. Every other candidate is in single digits.

Bachmann, previously at 10 percent in the last CNN poll, now stands at four percent.

“Perry doesn’t simply have the most support in a hypothetical ballot, he also tops the list of GOP candidates on every personal quality tested,” added Holland.

Thirty-six percent, for example, see him as the strongest leader in the field, with Romney second at 21 percent. According to the poll, 35 percent say Perry is the Republican candidate most likely to get the economy moving again, with Romney in second at 26 percent.

But the biggest thing Perry has going for him, according to the poll, could be his electability factor, as 42 percent say he has the best chance of beating Obama. Some 26 percent say Romney has the best chance of ousting the president.

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