Texas Gov. Rick Perry greets Lois Lundberg, former Orange County GOP chairwoman,… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Los Angeles and Corona del Mar — The Republican presidential race escalated into an unlikely brawl over Social Security on Thursday, as Mitt Romney seized on Rick Perry's forceful denunciation of the popular program to challenge the judgment and electability of the Texas governor.
Hours after the two candidates — the erstwhile front-runner and his successor — clashed face-to-face at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Romney renewed his criticism in a radio interview with conservative host Sean Hannity.
Far from the failure that Perry suggests, Social Security "is an essential safety net for the American people," said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. "If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party."
Campaigning in Corona del Mar, Perry made only brief reference to the debate, in which he attacked Social Security as an unsustainable "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie" to younger Americans counting on its benefits. He did not mention those comments in his remarks Thursday and barely acknowledged his opponents.
Instead, Perry focused on President Obama and said he would provide the sharpest general election contrast with the Democrat.
"The point is we need to have a nominee that doesn't blur the lines between themselves and the current resident of the White House," Perry told about 1,000 people gathered at Roger's Gardens, a family-owned nursery about a mile from the ocean in Orange County.
But it was Perry's remarks on Social Security and his pugnacious stance Wednesday night that continued to resonate, setting up the most heated policy clash of the GOP race and framing what has become, for now, a two-man race between a guns-blazing anti-establishment governor and his more conventional, buttoned-down opponent.
In his 2010 book, "Fed Up!," Perry excoriates Social Security as unconstitutional and suggests its replacement with a "retirement safety net that is no longer set up like an illegal Ponzi scheme, but rather will allow individuals to own and control their own retirement." In other interviews, Perry has suggested the program should be run by individual states, as part of his push to move power away from Washington.
Romney has said the pension plan has financing issues that can be fixed by encouraging people to invest in private accounts, raising the retirement age and eliminating payments to well-off individuals. Perry has talked about those changes as well.
A legacy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Social Security has long been a bludgeon that Democrats use to attack Republicans. By taking up the cudgel, Romney and his advisors seem convinced the strategy can work in a GOP primary as well.
Repeated surveys have shown the bipartisan appeal of Social Security and the danger to any politician who attempts to tamper with it. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March, most Americans surveyed said they believed Social Security was imperiled, but even most Republicans opposed remedies such as raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for future retirees.
Even so, some GOP strategists said Perry's comments might help him in the primary, resonating with conservatives hostile to the federal government and perceived giveaway programs.
"It's not a play-it-safe strategy, but I'm not too sure voters aren't ready for some truth-telling," said Don Sipple, a GOP strategist neutral in the nominating contest. "We have a very restive electorate."
As for Romney's electability argument, many dismiss its effectiveness in the heat of a primary fight.
"That argument has been tried so many times, and it just doesn't work," said Paul Wilson, a Republican media consultant watching the race from the sidelines. "Voters want someone who will solve their problems or who represents their values, or both."
Times staff writers Robin Abcarian in Los Angeles and Paul West in Florida contributed to this report.