Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose bid for the White House depends heavily on support from religious conservatives, finds himself confronting an issue that is a flash point for that part of his base: his attempt to order schoolgirls to receive a vaccine that would protect them against a sexually transmitted virus.

The uproar over the Gardasil vaccine — manufactured by ­Merck, a major Perry campaign donor — knocked the candidate off-stride during a Republican debate Monday night.

The vaccine is aimed at shielding girls from human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexual infection that can lead to cervical cancer. Federal health officials say they are confident that the vaccine is safe, noting that more than 35 million doses have been administered in the United States with no pattern of serious side effects.

Perry bristled Monday night at accusations from his chief rival for tea party voters, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), that he had pushed the vaccine in 2007 at the bidding of Merck, which employed a former aide to the governor as a lobbyist.

“It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry said. “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

But campaign disclosure records portray a much deeper financial connection with Merck than Perry’s remarks suggest.

His gubernatorial campaigns, for example, have received nearly $30,000 from the drugmaker since 2000, most of that before he issued his vaccine mandate, which was overturned by the Texas legislature.

Merck and its subsidiaries have also given more than $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) since 2006, the year that Perry began to play a prominent role in the Washington-based group, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Perry served as chairman of the RGA in 2008 and again this year, until he decided to run for president. The group ranks among the governor’s biggest donors, giving his campaign at least $4 million over the past five years, according to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group.

“It’s very clear that crony capitalism could likely have been the cause” of Perry’s decision to issue the vaccine order, Bachmann said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show, alleging that the drug may be “dangerous” for young girls. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who until now has been generally supportive of Perry in public remarks, joined in the criticism.

A balancing act

The issue illustrates the difficult balancing act that Perry is attempting to perform in appealing to both the business and evangelical Christian wings of the Republican Party, a tightrope that he has walked for much of his political career. The governor is scheduled to travel to Liberty University in Virginia on Wednesday in his continuing bid to court religious conservatives.

The vaccine episode also underscores the close ties between Perry and his largest donors, many of whom have given millions of dollars to his campaigns and the RGA. In a report released Tuesday, Texans for Public Justice said that 32 percent of the $217 million collected at the RGA during the past five years, when Perry held several leadership roles with the group, came from 139 donors to his gubernatorial campaigns.

“With Perry, there’s his Christian conservative base and crony capitalism, and when push came to shove, crony capitalism won the day,” said Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice, which has frequently locked horns with the governor. “This puts him in trouble with a key part of his coalition.”

Mark Miner, a Perry spokesman, said that criticisms of the vaccine decision are unfounded and that the order was based solely on women’s health concerns. Cervical cancer kills an estimated 3,700 women a year.

“What drove the governor on this issue was protecting life and nothing else,” Miner said.

Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty University, told the Texas Tribune on Tuesday that Perry is “probably one of the stronger candidates on social issues” and predicted that the vaccine controversy would not seriously damage his candidacy. “You can’t find any of the candidates who haven’t made a mistake in their past,” Falwell said.

In 2007, Perry became the first governor in the country to attempt to make the HPV vaccine mandatory. Some social conservatives objected at the time because they argued that it would suggest to young girls that having sex is acceptable.

One of Perry’s closest confidantes, his former chief of staff Mike Toomey, was then working as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck, which was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar campaign to persuade states to make the vaccine mandatory.

Toomey, who has declined requests for comment, has since helped found Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry super PAC that can accept unlimited donations from corporations and wealthy donors. The group plans to raise as much as $55 million to help Perry compete for the GOP nomination, according to media reports.

Merck officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the company’s donations to Perry but issued a statement defending Gardasil’s safety and effectiveness.

Reversing his position

Until he began running for president, Perry staunchly defended the vaccine mandate as a “pro-life” attempt to protect women’s health and sharply criticized social conservatives for their opposition. But Perry now says he made a mistake by not going to the legislature.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently,” he said Monday night.

Bachmann said at the debate that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.” She also criticized Perry’s ties to Merck: “The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?”

Bachmann upped the ante on her criticism Tuesday morning, relating an unsubstantiated claim from an audience member in Tampa that the vaccine caused “mental retardation” in her daughter. Medical experts note that people often wrongly attribute unrelated conditions to vaccines.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine in 2006 for girls as young as 9, and medical authorities recommended that they receive it at age 11 or 12 to protect them before they start having sex. Only the District and Virginia require its use.

The vaccine has been “tested in thousands of people around the world,” according to the Web site of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “These studies showed no serious side effects. Common, mild side effects included pain where the shot was given, fever, headache, and nausea.” Some girls who get vaccinated also faint, the CDC noted.

But some experts have said they are concerned that there is insufficient evidence about how long Gardasil’s protection will last, whether serious side effects will emerge and whether a reduction in infections will necessarily translate into fewer cancers.

Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.

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