MIAMI, Fla. - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took his attacks on Rick Perry to America's retirement state on Wednesday, drawing comparisons between himself and Ronald Reagan and saying both he and the iconic late president believed in the Social Security program while Perry deems it a failure.
He also took his main rival for the Republican nomination to task for his tendency recently to "wear religion on (his) sleeve." In recent days, the Texas governor had described in highly personal terms his transformation into a Christian during his 20s.
In a state where more than one in five residents is on Social Security, Romney hit Perry hardest on the issue of preserving the federally run retirement savings program. "I think by the measure of the tens of millions of people that rely on Social Security, it's a success," Romney said at a Town Hall-style meeting that attracted about 70 people. "Ronald Reagan believed in Social Security. I believe in Social Security."
His comments, in advance of Saturday's straw poll held by Florida Republicans, elicited a response from Perry, also stumping in Florida.
"Every person who is on Social Security and any individual who has planned their retirement with that, they need to know one thing: America has promised that that program will be there," Perry said after a private fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale. "And for anyone to say differently, particularly someone standing on the Republican stage who wants to be the nominee for the presidency, to imply that the age-old Democrat trick that we're going to go scare our seniors - that's pretty irresponsible."
Perry has described Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," and Romney pounced on him for it in last week's GOP candidate debate. Perry has since tried to distinguish between preserving the program for current retirees while putting it on more solid financial footing for future retirees.
In a statement, Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan accused Romney of "again sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens. As he has so many times in the past, Mr. Romney seems to forget he's a Republican."
Fielding questions from reporters after the town hall event, Romney complained that, "Some candidates, Rick Perry among them, wear religion on their sleeves and make no apologies about it."
Last week, several thousand people at Liberty University, an evangelical college in Virginia, turned out to hear Perry speak. He used the occasion to describe his hardscrabble upbringing in Texas and his religious awakening as a young man.
Romney is a Mormon, and his religion was an issue in his failed 2008 bid for president. Polls show that this time around it remains an issue for some evangelical Christian voters. Romney said Wednesday, "I think people make their decisions as to who they want to have as president based on a whole series of personal considerations, and I'm not going to try and suggest to the American people how they make those decisions.
"I can tell you that the values of the Judeo-Christian world form an important part of our ethical base and of our legal base. We're based upon those values. ... Those fundamental principles of America I think are appropriate"
Like Perry in recent days, Romney took pains to emphasize his allegiance to Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians at a time the United Nations is considering a Palestinian statehood bid. Apparently referring to President Obama's suggestion that the 1967 borders between the two countries be a starting point for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Romney said, "The president should not be negotiating for his ally, Israel. The president should stand behind Israel. And negotiations and discussions should be held in private if the president has a different view than they do. So my efforts will be talking about the need to stand by our ally."
Perry expressed similar views in New York City earlier this week. Both men are eager to please Jewish voters in the aftermath of an upset special election in New York City, in which Republican Bob Turner prevailed over the Democrat in part by appealing to the district's large pro-Israel Jewish population. Democrats have long been thought to have a lock on Jewish voters.