GOP candidate Rick Perry will get an opportunity to flesh out his view on… (Chris Carlson, Associated…)
Reporting from Tampa, Fla. — Rick Perry's provocative views about Social Security — he's described it as "a failure" and a "monstrous lie" to younger Americans — have gotten the attention of Republicans in Florida looking at the Texas governor as a potential presidential nominee.
In a state with the largest proportion of elderly voters — 1 in 3 GOP primary voters is 65 or older, many of them living on fixed incomes — Social Security is a perennial concern. Traditionally, a candidate espousing Perry's views wouldn't stand a chance.
Some still believe he doesn't, citing polls that repeatedly demonstrate support for the federal program and a reluctance to side with politicians who seek to drastically change it. Fellow GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney appeared to have those numbers in mind last week when he criticized Perry as a sure general election loser because of his Social Security stance.
One well-connected Florida Republican strategist, speaking anonymously to preserve relations with the candidates, predicted: "If Perry doesn't correct the way he's talking about Social Security, he's toast." The governor will get an opportunity Monday night, when he and seven other GOP contenders meet in a CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa.
But Perry's odds could be improved by two circumstances. For one, he is the candidate of the moment; Republican voters have propelled the blunt-spoken Texan to the top of the polls, and his tough language on Social Security only confirms his anti-establishment demeanor.
Perhaps more importantly, the program's funding problems may be changing the way politicians and voters are confronting a once untouchable topic: overhauling the system.
In his 2010 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, Republican Marco Rubio proposed raising the Social Security retirement age for younger workers and "people thought the world had ended," said Alberto Martinez, then his campaign spokesman.
But Rubio survived the predictable criticism — including attack ads from an opponent promising to "protect Social Security" — and won election as one of the first "tea party" senators.
"Candidates need to be careful about how they approach the issue," Martinez said. "The ones who will be successful are those who offer honest solutions. People want to hear the truth. They know Social Security and Medicare are going bankrupt."
That was the view among a quartet of Social Security recipients who meet daily for lunch at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. None quibbled with Perry's description of Social Security, in last week's presidential debate, as "a Ponzi scheme."
"It was a Ponzi scheme from day one," said retired firefighter and registered Democrat Ernie Carrera, 81, sipping a tropical fruit milkshake. "People can see that the money's not coming in compared to what is going out."
Mario Castillo, 68, a semiretired auto paint distributor who is also a Democrat, leaned over from an adjoining table to say that Perry used the wrong language, but he added that Social Security "needs to be fixed."
While it is tempting to cast Florida as a Sun Belt paradise peppered with retirees from New York, its political importance is driven by the fact that the state is far more than that.
Florida "is very reflective of the entire fabric of the country," thanks to an influx of residents from across the East and, especially, the Midwest, said Brett Doster, a GOP consultant who is close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Beyond its large senior population, Florida is diverse. Latinos, including Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans and recent immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela cast about 1 in 10 primary votes.
The Sunshine State has also been hit harder than most by the recession and its aftermath, with the third highest jobless rate among the nation's 10 most populous states and one of the highest rates of home foreclosures in the country.
Romney, who finished second in the Florida primary during the 2008 presidential campaign, has nurtured his ties to major donors and activists in the state. The former corporate takeover specialist recently outlined his economic plan in a 160-page book, one that offered no specific proposals for making Social Security solvent long term.
Perry, who joined the race last month, needs to take his criticism of Social Security "to the next step" by offering a plan to fix it, said Sara Taylor Fagen, a former White House political director for George W. Bush who worked for candidate Tim Pawlenty until he left the race.
The first big state on the primary calendar, Florida was the pivotal contest in the fight for the 2008 Republican nomination. GOP strategists in Florida and elsewhere say it will prove decisive again.
The 2012 Republican race, Fagen predicted, will eventually turn on Perry's ability to consolidate conservative support in the early voting states and confront Romney in Florida.