Rick Perry Turns Establishment Heads With Blunt Social Security Talk

The Texas governor gave some Republicans heartburn when he called the program a "Ponzi scheme" on Wednesday night

Perry after debate - Mario Anzuoni Reuters - banner.jpg

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's loaded descriptions of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie" in Wednesday's presidential primary debate were nothing new from the hard-charging Republican. But the fact that he repeated the red-hot rhetoric without toning it down for a national television audience surprised some GOP strategists, who questioned whether his head-on challenge of Social Security would become a liability if he's the GOP nominee against President Obama.

"For Rick Perry to call the Social Security check that your mother and my mother receive each and every month a fraudulent way to collect money could be devastating,'' said Florida-based Republican strategist Jamie Miller, who is not working for any of the presidential candidates. "If Mitt Romney is able to turn the primary into a debate about Social Security reform instead of about his health care record in Massachusetts, I think he wins.''

And Mitt Romney wasted no time Thursday trying to capitalize on the issue, with his team convinced that such overheated language is politically toxic even in Republican primaries--where early-voting states like Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida are filled with seniors. Romney went on Sean Hannity's radio show this afternoon, questioning whether Perry was too extreme to defeat Obama.

"If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we would be obliterated," Romney told the conservative talk show host.

The head-turning exchange between Perry and Romney on Social Security comes as the Republican field heads to retiree-friendly Florida on Monday for the first of two nationally televised debates this month. One-third of the Florida voters in the 2008 Republican primary were at least 65 years old, according to exit polling in the state, and it's likely to host an early and influential primary in the nomination process.

"I think Perry needs to thread the needle on Social Security, so that he makes his point without losing votes,'' said Republican consultant Eric Eikenberg, who worked for former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., when he was chairman of the Social Security committee. "I think people are ready to hear what Gov. Perry is saying if he can find better choices of words.''

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger emphasized that the governor is not advocating cutting benefits for those currently receiving Social Security checks or approaching retirement. She said his description of the trust fund as a "Ponzi scheme'' refers to his belief that younger workers who are paying into the fund will never reap the benefits.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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