Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses an audience at a GOP fundraiser in Richmond,… (Steve Helber, Associated…)
Reporting from Sun Lakes, Ariz., and Richmond, Va. — Amid bashing President Obama and other Democrats, GOP front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry continued to tangle Wednesday over Social Security and job creation, issues raised during their sharp debate face-offs in recent days.
Romney, speaking at a gated adult community in the Phoenix suburbs, reiterated his attack on Perry's claim that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and that it ought to be handled by the states instead of the federal government.
"Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme," the former Massachusetts governor told hundreds of seniors gathered in Sun Lakes. "Social Security has worked for 75 years pretty darn well. You guys are not taking advantage of Social Security. You contributed to it; it's a savings plan, a pension plan. There are no bad guys in Social Security, so I don't call it a Ponzi scheme."
Romney said Perry's suggestion that the plan shift to the states was unmanageable because people move and live in multiple states, and he feared that state legislators would raid the funds when facing financial difficulties. He said that the program did need to be reformed for younger workers, and that raising the retirement age was among the options he would consider.
"I will save Social Security financially and as a federal program," said Romney, who was interrupted with applause.
Perry, meanwhile, told 1,000 Virginians at a state party fundraising lunch in Richmond that Republicans needed to choose "a nominee who draws a clear and distinct contrast" with Obama.
The Texas governor said afterward that he presented a clearer contrast with Obama than Romney, his main rival for the nomination. Contrasting job growth in Texas with that in Massachusetts, Perry described Romney's job creation efforts while governor as "substantially less than quality work. If Americans' big issue is getting back to work, I'm the guy that's got the record of doing that."
Perry also took issue with GOP rival Michele Bachmann's suggestion this week that a vaccine meant to guard against cervical cancer could cause "mental retardation."
Bachmann drew that link as part of her attack on Perry over his 2007 executive order requiring all sixth-grade girls in Texas to receive the HPV vaccine.
"I think that was a statement that [had] no truth … and no basis in fact," Perry said, echoing the judgment of health officials.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, had no public events Wednesday, but met in Phoenix with controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and held a fundraiser.
Perry, who spoke about his Christian faith Wednesday morning at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., held fundraising meetings in the state during the afternoon and ate dinner in New York with Donald Trump.
Perry declared that the Democratic Party was "on the ropes" after losses in House special elections Tuesday in Nevada and New York.
The GOP triumph "tells you that this job-killing, tax-raising, regulatory-burdensome administration is headed down the wrong road," Perry said, adding that "another half a trillion dollars of stimulus is not going to do anything except make Americans even stronger in their support of Republicans who want to get America working again."
Romney, speaking earlier in the day in Tucson, also attacked Obama's $447-billion jobs proposal.
"We keep thinking a little stimulus will get things going. What's wrong in America right now cannot be cured by a little cup of gasoline on the fire," Romney said. "We need to fundamentally reshape the foundation of our economy and its relationship with government so businesses are once again and individuals are once again incentivized to invest in America."
But Romney's policies were questioned in Sun Lakes, when a woman in the audience asked why he would not disavow the healthcare plan he put in place in Massachusetts that served as the model for Obama's healthcare overhaul. Romney grew heated, telling the woman, "First of all, you're wrong."
He argued that several differences existed and vowed, again, to repeal Obama's plan "on Day One."
Mehta reported from Sun Lakes and West from Richmond.