(The author of the following excerpt is Dana Milbank.) The applause identified Rick Perry as the crowd favorite when he took the stage in Tampa for Monday night’s Tea Party debate,  greeting his lesser rivals as “fellas.” But two hours later, those fellas – and a gal from Minnesota – had made some serious progress toward exposing the broad-shouldered Texas governor as an empty suit.

Sometimes they challenged Perry from the left (on Social Security and Medicare) and sometimes from the right (on immigration, taxes and mandatory vaccines), but it all came back to the same thing: The frontrunner was befuddled – seemingly stunned that his rivals would question his right to the Republican presidential nomination. The lowest point for the man atop the polls came when Michele Bachmann accused Perry of cronyism, suggesting that he forced girls to receive the HPV anti-cancer vaccine because his former chief of staff was lobbying for the vaccine maker, Merck, which also “gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor.” Perry answered with his trademark boastfulness: “It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.” * * * * “Empty suit” is pretty tough stuff, though it’s nothing that hasn’t been said about Perry in Texas by Texans. The new development was that Perry was treated pretty roughly by a crowd that should have been his. They didn’t like his stand on immigration and they didn’t like his stand on cervical cancer vaccinations. As I said in an earlier post, Perry was off his game last night.