Mitt Romney and Rick Perry spar during Monday's GOP debate in Tampa… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Picking up where the last Republican presidential debate left off, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney scuffled Monday night over Social Security and electability, trading barbs in the state with the most crucial elderly constituency in the country.
The prickly tone of the nationally televised session was set with the first question from the studio audience in Tampa, Fla., asking how the government pension plan could be reformed without scaring off senior citizens.
Perry, the Texas governor, soberly promised “a slam-dunk guarantee that program is going to be in place” for today’s elderly recipients and “those moving toward” receiving Social Security.
He did not, however, back away from his provocative suggestion that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme” and a fraud on future generations, reiterating the call he made in last week’s debate for a frank discussion and major overhaul of the program.
Romney seized on that language, calling it “over the top, unnecessary and frightful to people.”
While the financing of Social Security merits discussion, the former Massachusetts governor said, Perry has gone much farther, suggesting dismantlement of the program by turning control over to individual states, to operate as they choose. That, Romney said, “is likewise frightening” to senior citizens.
Perry ignored the specifics and said simply that it was time for a thoughtful conversation about reforming the government pension system, rather than engaging in demagoguery — a remark that drew a roar from the supportive crowd of “tea party” faithful.
He sought to turn the issue around and attack Romney, saying he had once characterized the Social Security program as “criminal.”
“That’s in your book,” Perry said as the audience hooted. (Perry’s own 2010 book, “Fed Up!,” has provided a feast of controversial statements for his opponents.)
Romney acidly accused Perry of misquoting him, saying he had used the word to describe Congress taking money from the Social Security trust fund for other programs. “You’ve got to quote me correctly,” Romney said.
The debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds was sponsored by CNN, the Tea Party Express — one of the most prominent offshoots of the small-government, anti-Washington movement — and dozens of tea party chapters around the country.
It was clear from the audience response that Perry was a favorite, along with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who noted in her opening remarks that she founded the tea party caucus in Congress.
The Social Security issue has roiled the GOP contest since last week’s debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., when Perry was challenged about his “Ponzi scheme” language. Romney — the frontrunner until the Texas governor entered the race —has assailed Perry in the days since, at one point suggesting that nominating the outspoken governor could destroy the Republican Party.
Like the Southern California meeting, the session Monday night felt early on like a two-person debate, with the other six candidates standing sidelined until the moderator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, asked them to react to Perry and Romney.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he has been talking about Social Security reform for well over a decade, displaying “the courage to tell the truth” in another state with a large elderly population. (Florida has the nation’s largest proportion of senior voters — 1 in 3 GOP primary voters is 65 or older — and many of them live on fixed incomes.)
Rep. Ron Paul said he would like to see young people given a chance to opt out and invest their money where they choose. Businessman Herman Cain declined to endorse or reject Perry’s language, saying, “I don’t care what you call it, it’s broken.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew an appreciative roar from the audience when he said he was not especially worried about Perry or Romney frightening voters “when Obama scares them every single day.”
There was little else in the early going to distinguish the candidates from one another.
Asked how he would stoke the economy and create jobs, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called for a simplification of the tax code, to lower rates and strip away loopholes and “corporate welfare.” He also called for less regulation, a proposal seconded by Perry, among others.
Asked about cuts to help slash the federal deficit, Gingrich insisted there was enough waste to eliminate without hurting programs. Perry said that was his experience in Texas, though Romney was dubious.
He called for a federal cap on spending and a balanced budget amendment as well as efforts to expand the economy through tax cuts and deregulation.
The debate was the fifth of the GOP presidential contest and the second in five days. The GOP candidates will debate again next week in Florida, on Thursday night in Orlando. In August 2012, Republicans will hold their nominating convention in Tampa.