LOS ANGELES â€” Picking up where the last Republican presidential debate left off, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney scuffled Monday night over Social Security and electability, trading barbs in the state with the most crucial elderly constituency in the country.
The prickly tone of the nationally televised session was set with the first question from the studio audience in Tampa, Fla., asking how the government pension plan could be reformed without scaring off senior citizens.
Perry, the Texas governor, soberly promised â€œa slam-dunk guarantee that program is going to be in placeâ€ for todayâ€™s elderly recipients and â€œthose moving towardâ€ receiving Social Security.
He did not, however, back away from his provocative suggestion that Social Security was a â€œPonzi schemeâ€ and a fraud on future generations, reiterating the call he made in last weekâ€™s debate for a frank discussion and major overhaul of the program.
Romney seized on that language calling it â€œover the top, unnecessary and frightful to people.â€
While the financing of Social Security merits discussion, the former Massachusetts governor said, Perry has gone much further, suggesting dismantlement of the program by turning control over to individual states to operate as they choose. That, Romney said, â€œis likewise frighteningâ€ to senior citizens.
Perry ignored the specifics and said simply that it was time for a thoughtful conversation about reforming the government pension system, rather than engaging in demagoguery â€” a remark that drew a roar from the supportive crowd of â€œtea partyâ€ faithful.
He then sought to turn the issue around and attack Romney, saying he had once characterized the Social Security program as â€œcriminal.â€
â€œThatâ€™s in your book,â€ Perry said as the audience hooted. (Perryâ€™s 2010 book, â€œFed Up!,â€ has provided a feast of controversial statements for his opponents.)
Romney acidly accused Perry of misquoting him, saying he had used the word to describe Congress taking money from the Social Security trust fund for other programs. â€œYouâ€™ve got to quote me correctly,â€ Romney said.
The debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds was sponsored by CNN, the Tea Party Express â€” one of the most prominent offshoots of the small-government, anti-Washington movement â€” and dozens of tea party chapters around the country.
It was clear from the audience response that Perry was a favorite, along with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who noted in her opening remarks that she founded the â€œtea party caucusâ€ in Congress.
The Social Security issue has roiled the GOP contest since last weekâ€™s debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., when Perry was challenged about his â€œPonzi schemeâ€ language. Romney â€” the front-runner until the Texas governor entered the race â€” has assailed Perry in the days since, at one point suggesting that nominating the outspoken governor could destroy the Republican Party.
Like the Southern California meeting, the session Monday night felt early on like a two-person debate, with the other six candidates standing sidelined until the moderator, CNNâ€™s Wolf Blitzer, asked them to react to Perry and Romney.