Tonight's Debate Is All About Rick Perry and Social Security

His rivals see his beliefs on the program as a big vulnerability

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At last week's Republican primary debate, Rick Perry confessed he felt like "the piñata here at the party." When the eight candidates meet again Monday night in Tampa, Perry will only feel more battered. The key focus of the debate, sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, will be Perry's views on Social Security, NBC News' First Read says. The Texas governor has said the popular program is unconstitutional, a Ponzi scheme, and a failure. His rivals are going to force him to defend those beliefs.

Michele Bachmann's advisers think she missed an opportunity to attack Perry last week, The New York Times's Trip Gabriel and Michael D. Shear report. In an interview with an Iowa radio host late last week, Bachmann indicated she'd go after Perry's position on Social Security, telling O. Kay Henderson:
"That's wrong for any candidate to make senior citizens believe that they should be nervous about something they have come to count on. We need not do that."
(Bachmann also attacked President Obama for suggesting that old folks wouldn't get their Social Security checks in the mail of the debt ceiling weren't raised.)
Bachmann's spokeswoman made her line of attack more clear to Politico's Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns, saying the congresswoman "looks forward to the opportunity to explain the sharp contrast between her view of Social Security and that of Governor Perry" and will insist that "the federal government should keep its promise to seniors."
Mitt Romney, for his part, is stepping up his attacks on Perry's stance, sending out an attack ad on the issue in the mail, Erick Erickson notes. And in his endorsement of Romney, former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty went after Perry on the issue, saying, "Gov. Romney wants to fix Social Security. He doesn't want to abolish it or end it... Gov. Perry has said in the past that he thought it was 'failed.'" Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio told Politico, "I don't think Romney is going to take his foot off the gas, especially in Florida, on Social Security." But he might dig up more stuff from Perry's book, Fed Up. (On the other hand, Jon Huntsman's campaign is pitching Romney and Perry as "two peas in a pod" on Social Security -- Romney wrote that Americans "have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security.")
Perry, anticipating tonight's attacks, has an op-ed in Monday's USA Today in which he promises "to be honest with the American people" about Social Security. "Americans deserve a frank and honest discussion of the dire financial challenges facing the nearly 80-year-old program," Perry writes. But as The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza notes, Perry omits reference to his belief that Social Security is unconstitutional.
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