Debating in Florida, where one in five residents is a Social Security recipient, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed over their visions of the retirement program, continuing a lively debate between the two front-runners that threatens to overshadow the rest of the field.
The two sparred on Social Security, health care, immigration, and education, with Perry pressing to define Romney as outside the party's conservative mainstream -- "Obama-lite," as he termed Romney in an interview earlier this week -- and Romney describing Perry as a candidate prepared to cut his views to fit campaign fashions.
Perry, whose criticism of Social Security has fed his populist, anti-Washington image, sought to assuage concerns that he will do away with the retirement program. "Let me say first, for those that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security: They don't have anything in world to worry about. We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that the Social Security program in place today will be there for them," he said. Then, even though the question came from Fox News panelist Megyn Kelly, Perry quickly pivoted to attack Romney, who has been making an issue of Perry's use of the term "Ponzi scheme" to describe Social Security.
"It is not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before,” he said.
Romney countered that Perry's debate-night views on Social Security are "different than what the governor put in his book.”
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“There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying … the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business," Romney said. "That it is unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,” Romney said.
Exchanges like those prompted former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to quip at the end of the debate, “I'm tempted to say when all is said and done, the two standing in the middle, Romney and Perry, aren't going to be around because they are going to bludgeon each other to death.”
Though Herman Cain and Ron Paul got some of the loudest ovations of the night, the riveting confrontations between Romney and Perry seemed on the verge of turning the other seven candidates on the stage into spectators. The only real competition to the front-runners, in terms of providing talker moments, was the audience in the Orange County Convention Center, which at one point booed a soldier stationed in Iraq who revealed in his videotaped question that he is gay and questioned whether the candidates would retreat on what he called the “progress” made recently on military gay rights. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay military service expired this week.
Perry and Romney tangled again and again. Challenged on the consistency of his Social Security views, Perry tried to turn the tables by arguing that Romney had changed his tune about the exportability of the Massachusetts universal health care plan, featuring an individual mandate, between the hardcover and paperback versions of his own campaign biography. Countered Romney: “I actually wrote my book.”
The Texas governor used a discussion on education policy to link Romney to the president. He criticized Romney for praising the administration’s Race to the Top program, which gives states grants in exchange for making changes to their educational systems, saying it showed he’s not conservative.
“I think is an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person that wants to run for the presidency,” he said. “Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top … that is not conservative.”
Romney retorted, “Nice try,” drawing laughs from the audience. But he did praise Education Secretary Arne Duncan, saying he supported policies that encouraged teacher evaluations.