At this week’s Iowa debate Brett Baier asked the Republican field a playful, yet crucially important question: “Is Rick Perry outsmarting you all?” The candidates chuckled, but these feigned smiles and tongue-in-cheek quips covered up a clear genuine concern – Rick Perry may quickly grab hold and control the Republican primaries.

Perry already had a powerful impact before even entering the race. He polled consistently in second place only a few points behind front-runner Mitt Romney. He was readily embraced by conservative media personalities and intellectuals. He was seen as the conservative that a disaffected and uninspired base has been waiting for.

Perry is seen as the sole potential unifier – the perfect candidate to bring these three key groups of the Republican base together: social conservatives, conventional Republicans, and fiscal conservatives/libertarians. Romney, Bachmann, and others all have troubles with one or more of these groups.

But the Perry honeymoon will pass as he is subjected to the vetting processes of an actual candidate. Although proven conservative and tested leader, there still lies a legislative skeleton in his closet that may potentially serve as a divisive wedge between those three very factions – a mandated HPV vaccine.

On February 2nd, 2007, Perry signed an executive order requiring all Texas girls to receive an HPV vaccine (Gardasil) in hopes of preventing a strain of the virus that can cause cervical cancer. Perry wrote, explaining his decision: “Some are focused on the cause of this cancer, but I remain focused on the cure… This is a rare opportunity to act, and as a pro-life governor, I will always take the side of protecting life.” Nevertheless, Perry’s order sparked the ire of many Texans.

Libertarian-minded individuals and small-government conservatives lambasted the Governor’s intrusion into a private healthcare matter. They saw an over-expansive state power, making decisions that should be done by parents in a government-free medical marketplace. Perry’s decision for the state to fund the shots also drew concern, due to their high per-shot cost. Moreover, Perry signed an executive order despite strong opposition by the state legislature, which was seen as a disturbing executive power grab.

Social conservatives painted Perry’s decision as a pragmatic surrender to immoral cultural trends. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease and the vaccine was seen as implicitly condoning teenage, pre-marital sex. Even Democrats joined social conservatives in critiquing the grounding for this decision: “Now, imagine a governor who wanted to take a needle, fill it with a controversial drug for sexually-transmitted diseases, and inject it in every 11 and 12-year-old girl in Texas.” (A statewide Democratic TV spot).

Perry tried to defend his decision, citing the opt-out clause in the mandate and the faulty-logic behind the sex-incentive concern (“If the medical community developed a vaccine for lung cancer, would the same critics oppose it, claiming it would encourage smoking?”). But, he was thoroughly defeated. The Texas legislature quickly passed a bill that overturned Perry’s order by a veto-proof majority (Perry wouldn’t have vetoed it though, anyway).

This is far from a parallel of the Romneycare albatross for the Perry campaign. He undoubtedly, and for good reason, still possesses the credentials to win the GOP nomination. Perry still maintains a strong relationship with social conservatives and has an economic record with job creation that no other candidate comes close to.

However, conservatives should certainly worry about the impact this could have on the general election – not on the base, but more importantly on the framework of the national debate. Due to the debt crisis and Tea Party movement, conservatives have positioned the national discourse in their favor: what must be cut from government? This must be the underlying question to the 2012 election.

But, as the Obama re-election team seeks to combat this advantage, the HPV vaccine provides an unfortunate opportunity. Under the guise of center-left moderation, Obama can fundamentally turn the tide: “Hey, we know government needs to slim down. But let’s be clear here and remember that there are a lot of good, necessary things it can do. Right, Rick?” Republicans must be cognizant of this danger and prepare for it in the primaries.

Rick Perry’s squabbles with Texas Republicans will be re-aired on the national stage. But in the face of these controversies, conservatives ought to weigh his principles over certain particulars. Force Perry to explain himself, but don’t linger on this single issue. An image lasts a long time, and he very well might have a general election to win.