WASHINGTON -- Michele Bachmann may have given Rick Perry some cover from the HPV vaccine issue in the national media, but as the Texas governor arrives in Iowa on Thursday, conservatives in the first-in-the-nation caucus state still have doubts and questions about Perry, on that issue and others.
Perry's record on the HPV vaccine is "not going to play well," said Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa conservative leader.
Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party official who is now a full-time political blogger, wrote Thursday that Perry's 2007 mandate that sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus is not likely to fade in voters' minds, largely because it raises significant questions about who Perry is at his core.
"What the debate over Perry's HPV mandate has really done is brought in to question Perry's character and convictions," wrote Robinson on his blog, The Iowa Republican. "That is why the HPV issue has gained more traction and attention in recent weeks than Perry's comments about social security. Perry may want to put this issue to bed, but by the looks of things, his proposed HPV mandate could haunt him throughout the nominating process."
As one Tea Party activist, Kathy Carley of Des Moines, put it recently: "He's not what he appears."
Vander Plaats told HuffPost in an interview that if Perry wants to put the HPV issue to rest, he needs to apologize, face to face with Iowa voters, and explain that he was wrong. Period.
"Perry needs to get out here. He needs to clear it up. He needs to take the time it takes, whether it's in a diner or some large group setting," Vander Plaats said.
"What he needs to do is, instead of offering an excuse, just say, 'I would have done it differently.' Just be honest and transparent. If people find that trustworthy, I think you're okay. But if you feel like you're still hedging on some things, I think it's going to be more of a problem."
Perry has begun to take a more conciliatory approach. On Wednesday, in Richmond, he still offered up a rationale for what he did -- he said he wants to prevent cancer -- but put far less emphasis on defending his decision than he did in his first two presidential primary debates.
Perry's altruism defense may not wash with many conservatives, who could see his bleeding-heart rhetoric as a betrayal of his limited government ethos.
"In an election cycle that is being framed by President Obama's health care program, Perry is advocating for government solutions when it comes to health care, not the empowerment of individuals," Robinson wrote.
Perry has been all over the map in explaining his decision to mandate the vaccine .
When he first entered the race in mid-August, he faced questions about the Texas vaccine mandate, and stated that he should have worked with the legislature rather than use an executive order. He then went one step further and added that families should have been allowed to opt in, rather simplying being offered an opt-out provision.
But in both GOP debates over the past week, Perry pointed to the opt-out clause as a positive component of the executive order he signed.
"I don't know what's more strong for parental rights than having that opt-out," Perry said at his first debate in Simi Valley, Calif., last week.
Asked directly on Monday night, during his second debate in Tampa, Fla., whether the executive order he signed amounted to a mandate, Perry said it was not -- because of the opt-out provision.
"No, sir it wasn't. It was very clear. It had an opt-out," Perry said.
Then on Wednesday, Perry was back to stating that he should have had an opt-in instead of an opt-out.
Perry will have plenty of chances to apologize on a trip that will take him to central Iowa on Thursday evening and Friday morning, followed by two stops in the western portion of the state on Friday afternoon. Polling so far in the state has been limited. Two polls taken a week or so after Perry joined the race showed him with a small lead of two and three points, respectively, and a Rasmussen poll taken at the end of August gave him an 11-point edge over the rest of the GOP 2012 field.
Another social conservative leader in Iowa said he thought Perry could clear the HPV vaccine issue up.
"He has said that it could have been handled differently. If he can do that and convince people that it was probably not the proper decision then I think a lot of people probably can say, 'He thinks he made a mistake,' and go on," said the leader, who asked not to be identified.
Bob Haus, a longtime Iowa operative who is co-chairing Perry's campaign in the state, signaled that Perry will seek to keep his focus on the economy and his job creation record in Texas.
"Iowa voters have responded very well to his economic message and his conservative message in Texas, and I think they'll continue to respond well to that going forward," Haus said.
Even though Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, was the one who ripped Perry the hardest at the presidential primary debate in Tampa on Monday, her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, downplayed the HPV issue in an interview with HuffPost on Wednesday.
"It's a one- or two-day story," said Rollins, who is still an unpaid senior adviser to Bachmann, in what came across as an attempt to minimize Bachmann's remarks after the debate that the vaccine might cause "mental retardation."
"I don't think it's one that we'll hit the drum on," Rollins said of the Bachmann campaign. "If there's more on the cronyism, which I think there is, that's where you go make your case."
Rollins criticized Bachmann's comment even more openly in an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon, saying the candidate is "an emotional woman" and that she had made a "mistake."
But the HPV issue is still an open door Bachmann can walk through to talk about Perry's use of taxpayer funds and appointment of donors to government posts during his decade in the Texas governor's mansion.
The HPV mandate has raised questions about whether Perry took action to benefit a friend and has led to the charges of cronyism Rollins mentioned. Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for drug maker Merck when Perry issued the executive order mandating the vaccine in 2007. Merck has given Perry $29,500 in direct contributions since he became governor in 2000, and the company gave $377,000 to the Republican Governors Association when Perry was vice-chair and later chairman.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the RGA has given Perry at least $4 million over the past five years. And Texans For Public Justice, a watchdog group, reported this week that a third of the $217 million taken in by the RGA over the past five years came from 139 donors who have also given to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns.
Perry also misstated during the Tampa debate that Merck gave him $5,000, apparently referring to his 2006 reelection campaign, when in fact the drug company gave him $6,000 during that cycle. He also failed to mention that from the time he became governor to 2007, when the HPV order was issued, Merck gave him a total of $22,000.
Beyond the HPV vaccine controversy, Perry has more obstacles to clear with grassroots conservatives and Tea Party Republicans. His moderate stance on immigration, in particular, troubles many.
So does Perry's past support for a toll-road super highway known as the Trans-Texas Corridor that would have run from the Mexican border through Texas to Oklahoma. One concern raised about the project was that Perry's former legislative director, Dan Shelley, worked for the Spanish-owned development company that Perry awarded the development rights. The project was eventually scrapped due to strong opposition from voters, interest groups and lawmakers.
Vander Plaats mentioned that Perry's endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008 also raises a red flag because of Giuliani's support for gay marriage and abortion rights.
"He hasn't been vetted so far," Vander Plaats said.
Tyler Kingkade contributed to this report.