Texas Gov. Rick Perry's GOP rivals sharply criticized him during Wednesday night's debate over his 2007 executive order mandating that teenage girls be vaccinated to prevent cervical cancer — a move that drew strong opposition at the time from social conservatives and was later overturned by the state Legislature.
But they failed to bring up a key part of the story that fueled the Texas controversy and which Democrats are poised to pounce on: Perry's order came after the drug company that manufactured the vaccine hired Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff, as one of the firm's top lobbyists in Austin.
Toomey, who is now running the main "super pac" backing Perry's candidacy, was retained by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., maker of the Gardasil vaccine, which is designed to prevent the human papillomavirus, or HPV, an infection linked to cervical cancer in women.First Read: Simi Valley debate slugfest
- RHONJ Recap: Psychic Tells Teresa Giudice, Husband Joe's 'Definitely Going to Do Time'
- Susan Sarandon's Secret Fling, Chris Martin's Marriage Confession & More Weekend News
- From EW: See the Simpsons-Family Guy Crossover
- Shop the Star-Loved It Shoe of Summer
- Piper Perabo Wears a Most Unique Gown in Vibrant Wedding Photo
His hiring was part of an aggressive lobbying push in Texas by the drug company, which also donated $16,000 to Perry's gubernatorial campaigns in the two and a half years prior to the executive order. Merck paid Toomey between $260,000 and $535,000 in lobbying fees between 2005 and 2010, according to state lobbying records.
Although Perry's GOP foes never brought up the connection during the debate, Democratic political operatives and a public watchdog group said Thursday his association with Merck is likely to be emerge as a prime example of Perry's "crony capitalism," should he win the GOP nomination.Story: Perry, Romney twist records in debate
"When he signed that executive order, it turned a lot of heads because it seemed so out of character and didn’t sit well with his base," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks campaign contributions and lobbying in Austin. "Then people went looking."
Once the Toomey connection was discovered, "it was so obvious ... This is a prime example of how he [Perry] does something for a crony.”Story: Perry takes the heat but keeps on smiling
Asked for comment, Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign, emailed: "It's a 'prime example' of the Governor standing on the side of life."
On the campaign trail, Perry had recently apologized for the executive order-which would have made Texas the first state in the country to mandate that all teenage girls, starting with 12-year-old sixth graders, be vaccinated with Gardasil.
"I readily stand up and say I made a mistake on that," Perry said during an Iowa radio call-in show last month.
But he appeared to mostly defend the executive order during the debate, saying his goal was to "save lives."
"We wanted to bring that to the attention of these thousands of-tens of thousands of young people in our state," he said. "We allowed for an opt-out … Now did we handle it right? Should we have talked to the Legislature first before we did it? Probably so. But at the end of the day, I will always err on the side of saving lives."Story: Two Texans trade barbs in GOP debate
But that didn't stop Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum from bashing Perry over the issue.
"I want to get back to this Gardasil issue," Santorum said at one point. "You know, we have — Gov. Perry's out there and claiming about states' rights and states' rights. How about parental rights being more important than states' rights? … I am offended that the government would tell me, and by an executive order, without even going through the process of letting the people have any kind of input. I would expect this from President Obama. I would not expect this form someone who's calling himself a conservative governor."
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints