SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (BP)--The Republican presidential debate Wednesday that for the first time included Texas Gov. Rick Perry was largely devoid of questions on the major social issues, although viewers did get to hear the candidates discuss global warming and the death penalty.

The debate at the Ronald Reagan Library focused mostly on the economy and saw Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- the top two candidates in most national polls of GOP voters -- spar several times.

No questions about abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality or the definition of marriage were asked of the eight candidates.

Three candidates, though, took up the issue of global warming when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- moderate on some social issues -- was asked who he was referencing when he had said in an interview the GOP was in danger of becoming the "anti-science party."

Huntsman didn't name names during the debate but said, "When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science. We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy. We've got to win voters."

Politico's John Harris then asked Perry about comments he had made questioning the notion that human activity is behind climate change.

"The science is not settled on this," Perry said. "The idea that we would put Americans' economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is nonsense. ... To put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science."

Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Minn.) wasn't asked about global warming but -- after an unrelated question -- voluntarily discussed President Obama's Sept. 2 decision to scrap tougher Environmental Protection Agency standards on smog.

"I think it's important," Bachmann said, "to note that the president recognized how devastating the EPA has been in their rulemaking, so much so that the president had to suspend current EPA rules that would have led to the shutting down of potentially 20 percent of all of America's coal plants. Coal is the source that brings 45 percent of America's electricity. What we're seeing is that a political agenda is being advanced instead of a scientific agenda."

Perry's team sent out an email during the debate saying that "more than 31,000 American scientists since 2007" have expressed doubt about manmade global warming. The email was referencing a petition where the scientists said there is no convincing evidence showing human activity is causing or will cause "catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate."

On another topic, Perry also was asked about the state's execution of 234 death row inmates during his administration and if he ever struggles to sleep, wondering if any of them were innocent.

"I've never struggled with that at all," Perry responded. "The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place. When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that's required. But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."

Perry and Romney got the most questions, and both were asked about Perry's controversial decision in 2007 to require girls entering the sixth grade to receive a vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer. Because HPV is spread solely through sexual contact, many parents believed his order ignored parental rights. The Texas legislature passed a bill reversing his order. The controversy forced the state's Christian conservative leaders -- who normally work with Perry -- to oppose him.

"Cervical cancer is caused by HPV. We wanted to bring that to the attention of these ... tens of thousands of young people in our state," Perry said. "We allowed for an opt-out . I don't know what's more strong for parental rights than having that 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."

Bachmann, Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum each criticized Perry's decision. Romney said he disagreed with Perry on the issue but acknowledged that Perry has expressed some regret.

"I believe in parental rights and parental responsibility for our kids," Romney said. "My guess is that Gov. Perry would like to do it a different way second time through. ... We've each taken a mulligan or two. ... And I recognize he wanted very badly to provide better health care to kids and to prevent the spread of cancer. I agree with those who said he went about it in the wrong way, but I think his heart was in the right place."

Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.

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