LOS ANGELES — Heading next to Florida for back-to-back debates, the campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination faces a new, potentially pivotal question: Will Rick Perry's criticism of Social Security help or doom his candidacy?
The Texas governor may be casting himself as an unwavering man of principle, unafraid to stick by a potentially controversial stand, a trait that could further endear him to tea party conservatives and help him draw a bright line versus chief rival Mitt Romney, often criticized by them as a flip-flopper.
Or he might be committing political suicide.
That's especially a risk in retiree-rich Florida, the site of a crucial early Republican primary and a general-election battleground with Democratic President Barack Obama.
The next chance to watch: a debate Monday night in Tampa, followed by another Sept. 22 in Orlando. Both offer Perry a chance to argue that his unapologetic attack on Social Security needn't scare off elderly voters. They also offer his rivals a stage on which to hammer him as unelectable, and perhaps reverse his meteoric rise to the top of the pack in a few short weeks.
Perry, who called the federal-retirement program a failure in his book "Fed Up," drew the line anew Wednesday night in his debate debut in Simi Valley, Calif., where he refused to back down from his pointed criticisms of Social Security.
"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. "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."
He added that abolishing the program probably isn't possible.
"Any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what's been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time," he said. "Rather than spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doing back in the '30s and the '40s, it's a nice intellectual conversation, but the fact is we have got to be focused on how we're going to change this program."
He also said he wouldn't take away benefits from today's retirees and those near retirement.
On that and other issues — such as refusing to accept the preponderance of scientific evidence that human behavior is changing the climate — Perry used the debate to demonstrate that he'll stick to his guns, come what may.
"We learned that Rick Perry is always going to be unapologetically Rick Perry," said Dan Schnur, a veteran of Republican campaigns and the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"Perry's advisers see that as a strength. There have always been suspicions about what Mitt Romney really stands for, and they're banking on the belief that voters want someone who will stand on principle."
Romney, whose advisers think that Perry committed a potentially fatal mistake in repeating the "Ponzi scheme" critique on national TV, is all but certain to hit Perry with it in Florida.
"You say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure," Romney said to Perry in the California debate. "You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it.
"The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security."
Perry's campaign went farther Thursday, lashing out at Romney as a hypocrite because Romney himself ripped Social Security in his book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," published last year.
In that book, Romney wrote, "Let's look at what would happen if someone in the private sector did a similar thing. Suppose two grandparents created a trust fund, appointed a bank as trustee, and instructed the bank to invest the proceeds of the trust fund so as to provide for their grandchildren's education. Suppose further that the bank used the proceeds for its own purposes, so that when the grandchildren turned eighteen, there was no money for them to go to college. What would happen to the bankers responsible for misusing the money? They would go to jail."
Said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan: "Americans want a leader to speak honestly about the financial challenges facing our nation. Traditional political rhetoric and tap-dancing don't comfort Americans deeply concerned about the future of our nation."
Perry's stand could help him shore up support among conservatives. But rivals could use it against him in Iowa, where the elderly make up many of the precinct caucus attendees, and in Florida. Ultimately, as former Bush adviser Karl Rove has pointed out, Perry's pointed criticism could be "toxic" in a general election.
Social Security has long been known as the "third rail" of American politics: Touch it and you die. Democrats for decades have accused Republicans of threatening to undermine the popular program, often with great political success. George W. Bush spent much of 2005, the first year after his re-election, arguing that the system should be opened to private investment accounts. Democrats said that would undermine the system, polls showed the public agreed and the proposal never came to a vote in a Congress where Republicans controlled both houses.
The California debate also showed how much Perry has threatened the campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who'll be looking to reassert herself in Florida.
Like Perry, Bachmann has campaigned as a rock-solid conservative with a "titanium spine" who'd never waver.
But her campaign has struggled since she seized the lead last month in Iowa. Polls find that she's lost support to Perry. At least one analyst said the news media's fascination with newcomer Perry had hastened Bachmann's fall.
"The media eye has moved away from Bachmann, away from almost everybody," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "They have announced it's a two-person race between Perry and Romney."
As a result, she said, the media moderators of the California debate directed most of their early questions at Perry and Romney, and didn't get to Bachmann and others until well into the session.
Some, such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, managed to push their way in. But Bachmann was largely absent from much of the debate.
"Bachmann almost faded into the wallpaper," Jeffe said.
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