TAMPA, Fla. — The future of Social Security, a pivotal issue in retiree-rich Florida, seized the political spotlight at Monday's Republican presidential debate as Mitt Romney tried hard to tar Texas Gov. Rick Perry as insensitive and overly eager to tear the popular system apart.
In a sometimes intense debate full of charges and countercharges on a wide variety of issues, Romney landed strong blows on Perry.
Perry, front-runner in most national polls for the last few weeks, also took hits from other candidates — blows that are likely to lead to questions about his political strength in the days ahead.
Romney, currently Perry's strongest challenger, recited some of Perry's past blasts at Social Security — the Texas governor called it a "failure" and a "Ponzi scheme," among other things.
"The term Ponzi scheme is over the top," Romney said, "and unnecessary and frightful to many people."
Let's have a conversation, Perry said, "rather than trying to scare seniors like you're doing."
"Governor," Romney shot back, "the term Ponzi scheme is what scares seniors, and number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening."
The duel between Perry and Romney, now running 1-2 in most polls of Republican voters, were the sharpest exchanges during the two-hour debate, co-sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express.
The event had an unusual feel to it. The hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds had a rally-like atmosphere, unusual for such a debate, as supporters of the grassroots conservative tea party movement from around the country dominated the audience.
They cheered Perry's comments on Social Security, and applauded enthusiastically at the introductions of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who founded the House of Representatives Tea Party Caucus, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and businessman Herman Cain.
Perry took hits from Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both of whom badly want the support of the politically active tea party.
Perry said he had erred in how he went about requiring vaccines for young girls against HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease and a major cause of cervical cancer. He should have sought legislative approval, he said.
Bachmann was outraged at the idea of requiring such vaccines. "I'm a mom," she said, "and to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong."
Bachmann maintained that a drug corporation made big money from the decision. Perry said the company gave him a $5,000 campaign donation — in a campaign where about $30 million was raised.
"If you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry said. And, he said, the vaccine was not mandatory.
"You may criticize me about the way I went about it," he said, "but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life."
Perry also took heat on his immigration policies, notably the Texas law that gives in-state tuition help for immigrants on a path to citizenship.
But it was the Romney-Perry duel on several fronts that took the spotlight.
The two stood next to each other on the podium. They sparred over job growth — Romney said Perry had made some impressive economic progress in Texas. But, Romney said, his rival was dealt "four aces" — no income tax, right to work laws, a GOP legislature and a thriving oil industry.
"If you're dealt four aces, that doesn't necessarily make you a good poker player," Romney said.
Perry shook his head. "You were doing pretty good until you got to poker," he said.
Paul was unimpressed. "I'm a taxpayer there," he said. "My taxes have gone up."
Perry, vying for the support of the tea party crowd, also got grilled on his comment last month that it would be "treasonous" if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tried to boost the economy before the 2012 election.
He would not back down. "I said that if you allow the Federal Reserve to be used for political purposes, that it would be almost treasonous," he said. "I think that is a very clear statement of fact."
Bachmann would not criticize the comment — "that's for Gov. Perry to make that decision," she said.
Romney offered a measured response. The Fed, he said, "has a responsibility to preserve the value of our currency," he said.
And if there's no Fed, "who's going to run our currency? Congress? I'm not in favor of that."
The most politically consequential battle of the night involved Social Security, because the politics of how to keep the system healthy is crucial to the eventual Republican outcome on two levels.
Florida is likely to be the first big, diverse state to hold its Republican presidential nominating contest early next year. It's also considered a state that the GOP candidate has to win in order to gain the White House.
Romney's campaign is built on an image of being able to attract diverse groups of voters, and he has the financial resources to spend heavily in big states. He also has a built-in constituency here. One-third of Republican voters in Florida are over 65, and in the 2008 Florida GOP presidential primary, he won 31 percent of the over-65 vote.
The 76-year-old Social Security system is sacrosanct here. Romney, whose lead among Republicans in most national polls evaporated once Perry entered the race a month ago, has been aggressively trying to show Perry as dangerous to seniors' interests.
Perry patiently explained that he didn't want to change benefits due current retirees or those who will retire soon.
"It has been called a Ponzi scheme long before me," he said. "But no one's had the courage to stand up and say, here is how we're going to reform it."
Perry pledged — "slam dunk guaranteed" — that people now getting Social Security, or close to it, will find the program is "going to be there for them."
But, he said, "we're going to transform it for those in midcareer ages, but we're going to fix it so that our young Americans that are going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt that there were some people who came along who didn't lie to them."
Romney would not relent. Sure, Social Security funding needs help. "The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out, and returned to the states," he asked Perry, "or do you want to retreat from that?"
"I think we ought to have a conversation," Perry said.
"We're having that right now, governor," Romney said. "We're running for president."
Paul, a libertarian with a sizable tea party following, jumped in, noting that a key reason Social Security is estimated to be heading toward insolvency in 25 years is that the money is too often spent on unnecessary programs — like "wars and all that nonsense that we do around the world."
Instead, he said, "What I would like to do is allow all the young people to get out of Social Security and go on their own."
ON THE WEB:
MORE FROM McCLATCHY: