ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican Michele Bachmann is feeling the sting of a presidential campaign jab gone awry, while the target is using the flap to shore up his pro-life credentials.
Bachmann is trying to regain her footing in the race after a late-summer slide. At a GOP debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express Monday she tried to raise doubts about front-runner Rick Perry among conservatives and libertarian-style tea party members critical to both candidates.
Bachmann criticized Perry, the Texas governor, for signing an order requiring middle-school girls in his state to get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. But in the following days, she linked the vaccine to mental retardation. Medical experts roundly disputed the claim, calling it irresponsible and dangerous.
Following a fundraiser in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Perry admits he "made a mistake in the way I took this forward" in 2007. But he categorized his support for the mandate under the same moral conviction that makes him opposed to abortion.
"I've sat on the side of a bed with a young lady as she was dying of cervical cancer. It had an impact on me," Perry said. "Did I mishandle this law? I've readily admitted that I did."
Political observers say Bachmann's comments in the days after the debate muddied her shot at Perry.
"It's an absolute blown hit," said David Welch, an unaligned GOP strategist who worked for nominee John McCain in 2008. "It's the difference between the ready-for-prime-time political candidate and the not-ready-for-prime-time political candidate. You just don't repeat what somebody just told you."
In post-debate TV interviews, Bachmann said that a tearful woman approached her to attribute her daughter's mental retardation to the HPV vaccine called Gardasil.
Doctors and other immunization advocates criticized her comments as unfounded, irresponsible and dangerous. Some expressed worry that nervous parents would take the claim as fact and refuse inoculation for their children.
"It's the obligation of politicians to know the facts before they talk about vaccinations. They should understand how they work, how important they are and how much work goes into recommendations for their use," said Dr. Deborah Wexler, executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition, a vaccine information clearinghouse for doctors and the public.
Wexler added in an interview Wednesday, "It harms our vaccination program when public figures make statements that are untrue and do it in an emotional statement."
Bachmann has since ratcheted her comments back.
"I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. I'm not a physician," Bachmann told Fox News host Sean Hannity when asked if she personally believed a Gardasil injection could cause retardation.
Bachmann wasn't available Wednesday for an interview with The Associated Press, but spokeswoman Alice Stewart said the congresswoman's message was about more than the safety of the vaccine.
"The point she was making dealt with the overreach of executive authority and crony capitalism," Stewart said.
The HPV vaccine issue also simmered in Bachmann's home state of Minnesota, but not wasn't as explosive as in Texas. By the time the issue reached the Legislature in 2007, Bachmann was in Congress. The bill was introduced but never got a hearing.
Minnesota law requires schoolchildren to get vaccines for rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio and hepatitis B.
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The state's childhood immunization law underwent minor changes while Bachmann was a state senator. She supported all of the revisions, which mostly dealt with timing of previously mandated vaccinations, recordkeeping and requirements that health providers more closely track problems with vaccines.
Opponents of required HPV immunizations draw a distinction between the vaccine and those for other communicable diseases like mumps and polio. They argue parents should have the ultimate say on the HPV because it is aimed at stopping sexually transmitted diseases spread by risky behavior.
Associated Press writer Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.