Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney picked up Monday night where they left off in their last debate encounter, with the two GOP heavyweights engaging in a testy exchange over Social Security.
Mr. Romney tried to put Mr. Perry on the spot, after the three-term Texas governor refused to back off his repeated description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme."
"The real question is, does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional, and it should be returned to the states? Or is he going to retreat from that view?" Mr. Romney said, repeating the question several times.
Mr. Perry said, "Obviously, we’re not going to take the program away."
"The issue is, are there ways to move states in Social Security for state employees or retirees. I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America, rather than try and scare seniors, like you're doing, and other people, it is time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program so it's not bankrupt and our children actually know that there is going to be a retirement program for them," Mr. Perry said.
The exchanged kicked off a debate in which the eight Republicans in the field squared off at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa for the first of two debates over the next 12 days in the Sunshine State, which could play an vital role in selecting who will go on to challenge President Obama in the 2012 election.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain also participated in the debate, during which they responded to a variety of questions, from the role of the Federal Reserve to illegal immigration and national security.
Sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, the event came a few days after Mr. Obama rolled out a $447 billion jobs plan before a joint session of Congress. With the latest jobs report showing no new growth in August and the unemployment rate stuck at around 9.1 percent, it is becoming clear that Mr. Obama — as well as the GOP field — have a lot riding on the jobs debate in the coming months.
The Democratic National Committee began airing televisions ads Monday urging voters in key swing states to rally behind the new plan, dubbed the "American Jobs Act." Mr. Obama also is embarking on a public relations tour this week, stopping to pitch the plan Tuesday in Ohio, House Speaker John A. Boehner's backyard, and then Wednesday in North Carolina.
With that as a backdrop, the plan came under intense fire from the GOP field on Monday night.
Mr. Perry warned the president planned to pay for the jobs plan by raising taxes and that it was a slimmed-down version of the stimulus package, which he said "created zero jobs."
"I can do that math on that one," he said, referring to the president's plan. "Half of zero jobs is zero jobs."
Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, the top two contenders in national polls, who stood side-by-side in the debate, claimed some high-profile endorsements in the hours before the debate opened Monday. Mr. Perry won the support of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mr. Romney picked up the support of Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who left the race after a disappointing third place finish last month in the Ames, Iowa, straw poll.
For Mr. Perry, the debate Monday event marked his second chance to mix it up with his GOP rivals and to show voters that he can live up to his first place standing in national polls.
Mr. Perry introduced himself to a national audience last week in a debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., where he stumbled through questions about global warming and came under fire for refusing to back off his characterization of Social Security as a "failure" and a "Ponzi Scheme," the same language he used to describe the program in his book "Fed Up!"
"It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there," he said during Wednesday's debate in California. "Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."
In response, Mr. Romney said the party should nominate someone "who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security."
Since then, several of Mr. Perry's GOP rivals and even some Democrats have piled on.
"He should go back and find out who Ponzi was," Vice President Joseph R. Biden told CNN's John King in an interview that aired Monday night. "It was an individual in a different deal, but no, it's not a Ponzi scheme. [Social Security] is secure through 2036 and to fix is not hard."
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has been relentless, claiming that Mr. Perry wants to scrap the program altogether, rather than save it for current retirees and reform it for future generations.
"Perry does not believe Social Security should exist," the Romney campaign said in a recent press release.
In a USA Today Op-Ed Monday, Mr. Perry struck a different tone, while trying to clarify his stance on the program.
"Social Security benefits for current recipients and those nearing retirement must be protected," he wrote. "For younger workers, we must consider reforms to make Social Security financially viable."
While some political onlookers are already prepared cast the nomination as a battle between Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, the rest of the field is working to convince voters that they can make a run at the two heavyweights.
Mrs. Bachmann took aim at an executive order Mr. Perry signed into law requiring 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas to be vaccinated for a transmitted sexual disease, calling it "flat-out wrong" and suggesting the governor was bought off by drug companies.
She also criticized Mr. Romney for signing a universal health care law as governor of Massachusetts, suggesting it shows he is not committed to scrapping Mr. Obama's health care overhaul.
Mr. Paul, meanwhile, said that Mr. Perry shouldn't get all the credit for the strong job creation in Texas, and questioned the way he's managed the state's finances.
"I'm a taxpayer there," he said. "My taxes have gone up. Our taxes have doubled since he took office. Our debt has gone up nearly triple. So, no — and 170,000 of the jobs were government jobs. So I would put a little damper on this, but I don't want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something."
The attack came after Mr. Romney pointed out that the job-creation records of the prior two Texas governors bested Mr. Perry's.
"I think the governor would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces, that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player," Mr. Romney said, adding that the four aces in job creation were: zero state income tax, low regulation, right-to-work laws, and vast oil supplies.
"You were doing pretty good until you got to talk poker," Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Perry's entrance into the race has hurt Mrs. Bachmann the most. She's fallen to fourth in most national polls behind Mr. Perry, Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul, and was largely overshadowed in the debate last week. Mr. Paul, meanwhile, has taken stiff aim at Mr. Perry, his fellow Texan.
Despite the attacks, a new CNN poll released Monday showed that Mr. Perry still the front-runner in the race. The governor also won some of the loudest applause from the tea party crowd.
Florida's role in the nomination race isn't set in stone, as the state GOP once again is threatening to ignore the wishes of the Republican National Committee by moving up its primary date to early next year. In 2008, the state pushed its primary to late January, prompting the traditional early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as South Carolina and Nevada, to push their contests to the first weeks of the new year.
Whatever the case, the Social Security fight could prove a major issue for the state's senior-rich electorate.
Before the debate Monday, the Florida Democratic Party expanded the criticism to the entire GOP field by releasing a new video that says the "GOP's risky plans for Social Security and Medicare" are a gamble the state's large elderly population can't afford.
The 30-second spot highlights Mr. Perry's "Ponzi scheme" comment, claims Mr. Romney supports privatizing Social Security and warns "all the Republican candidates have endorsed ending Medicare as we know it."
"Now they're coming to Florida, where millions of seniors rely on Social Security and Medicare to survive," the narrator says. "The Republican field. A gamble seniors can't afford."
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