Social Security becomes flashpoint in Romney-Perry battle

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Newport Beach, Calif. -- The day after his debut on the debate stage, where he played punching bag for his Republican rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry Thursday fled to the friendlier confines of an open-air political rally that attracted a crowd of roughly 300 people in Orange County. The GOP's fledgling front-runner for the nomination pointedly did not mention the hot new topic in the race: Social Security and Perry's labeling of the entitlement program as a "Ponzi scheme."

After Wednesday night's GOP debate, Perry's chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, tweaked his campaign strategy to go after Perry on the issue of preserving Social Security -- and go after him hard -- in what is rapidly becoming a two-person race. At the front of the pack until Perry made his entrance into the contest last month, the Romney campaign came out of the debate delighted with its progress arresting some of Perry's momentum after the Texan compared Social Security to a type of investor fraud poised to cheat future generations of retirees. "Rick Perry: Reckless, Wrong on Social Security" blared a headline from the Romney message machine on Thursday.

For his part, Perry's campaign was pleased that a candidate not known for his debate savvy committed no major gaffes in his first appearance with seven other Republicans at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. Perry spokesman Robert Black said, "I think it was very obvious that the moderator and the other candidates had Governor Perry in their sights; they went after him pretty hard. But like any good air force pilot, he stood his ground, took his licks, and came out stronger than when he went in."

GOP race turns intense as Perry, Romney tussle

At the rally, Perry gave an abbreviated version of his stump speech and repeated his well-worn Romney dig about the party "needing a nominee that doesn't blur the differences" with President Obama. While his rivals continued to hit him, Perry struck out at Obama, characterizing him as a hands-off president. "He's been in office for 31 months," Perry said. "Some of you may count it in different ways -- That's 76 rounds of golf."

On the day Obama delivered a major speech to Congress about the economy and job creation, Perry belittled the president's call for additional government spending on infrastructure. "If you want to stimulate the economy, why don't you just eliminate the middleman from this equation -- the federal government -- and let the private sector keep and invest that money themselves," Perry said. "They do a lot better job than the government."

Still, it was hard to argue that Perry wasn't on the defensive. "The governor has never said he wants to get rid of Social Security. He wants to make it work," his spokesman, Black, huffed in response to questions from reporters about Romney's new line of attack.

During the debate, Perry asserted, as he has in the past, that "it's a Ponzi scheme to tell children that they're paying into a program that's going to be there. It's a 'monstrous lie,'" he said. Romney said to Perry, "You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but is committed to saving Social Security." Perry stood by his Ponzi scheme analogy, and did not say one way or another whether he would preserve the system, although his spokesman said later he would preserve it for current beneficiaries and people "approaching" retirement. During their debate exchange, Perry told Romney, "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country."

In the whirl of message spin that followed, Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said Perry's position on Social Security would lose the election for the Republicans if he becomes the nominee. "There is no way that the Republican Party can be successful with a nominee who wants to dismantle Social Security," he said. "Mitt Romney believes that the Republican Party should be known as the party that saved and strengthened Social Security. That's how we're going to win next year against Obama."

For anyone who has grown weary of Romney's "I'm a businessman" stump speech, in which he sought to distinguish himself from the pack based on his private sector experience, change is in the air.

  • Rebecca Kaplan On Twitter»

    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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