Social security takes center stage leading into 2012

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With senior-rich Florida shaping up as a critical state in the 2012 Republican primary, two of the leading candidates are battling over the future of Social Security and whether one front-runner’s inflammatory comments about the program could harm the party in a general election, writes Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

At stake are the 29 electoral votes up for grabs in Florida and perhaps more in other states where retirees have flocked in recent decades. The scuffle also shows where tea party rhetoric could collide with electoral realities in the largest of swing states.

The issue gained life in the GOP primary last week, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry responded to a debate question about earlier statements he had made about Social Security by calling the program “a Ponzi scheme.” Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, seen as Perry’s strongest rival, seized on the remark and has hammered Perry with it ever since.

He continued that attack Monday night in a tea party debate in Tampa.

“The term ‘Ponzi scheme,’ I think, is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people,” Romney said.

Perry, who penned an editorial in USA Today earlier Monday softening his language and saying Social Security needs to be reformed, rebuffed the swipe from Romney.

“Rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing — and other people — it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it’s not bankrupt, and our children actually know that there’s going to be a retirement program there for them,” Perry said during the nationally televised debate.

Democrats who hope to recapture Florida for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012 have gleefully jumped on the controversy — and said that some of Romney’s ideas for Social Security are no better than Perry’s.

“Make no mistake, the tea party agenda includes ending Medicare as we know it, eroding Social Security, and, if fully implemented in 2012, eliminating 9.5 million jobs across America,” said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith. The party released a web video Monday highlighting Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” comment.

So far, Perry’s supporters in Florida are sticking by him. Appearing on CNN’s “American Morning” on Tuesday, state House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, backed the comments.

“I think Governor Perry’s metaphor of a Ponzi scheme is accurate in that it’s unsustainable,” Cannon said. “The new investors’ money that is paying our retiree won’t be there for those newer investors.”

Romney supporters, unsurprisingly, disagree.

“Our nominee must also oppose the dismantling of Social Security,” U.S. Rep. Connie Mack said in a statement issued by the Romney camp. “It is a program millions of seniors rely on – and many of them in our state of Florida.”

The dynamics of the Republican primary in Florida help to fuel the issue. State leaders have pushed to make the state’s GOP vote fifth in line — behind traditional early states like Iowa and South Carolina, where Perry will be favored, and New Hampshire and Nevada, where Romney appears to have the edge.

There are signs that Social Security reform might no longer be the third rail of American politics, even in Florida. Marco Rubio won a U.S. Senate seat despite his support for raising the retirement age, a stance that was assailed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP primary that Crist eventually left and in the three-way general election that followed.

But Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida, said Rubio’s statements appeared to be more carefully calibrated than Perry’s characterizations of Social Security.

“I think where Rick Perry got into trouble is people interpreting him as questioning whether we should have the program,” Corrigan said.

Even some Republicans who agree with Perry that the program needs reform say his rhetoric could cause heartburn in a general election.

“Could he have utilized more artful wording? Sure,” said Brian Graham, a Republican consultant.

Graham said a general assault on calls for Social Security reform might not be as potent now as in the past, in large part because of the new attention being paid to the country’s debt load. But he said it could still make a difference even in the primary among GOP voters concerned with electability.

“I think, for those voters, Mitt Romney looks more attractive because, of course, that issue won’t be there to beat up Mitt Romney on,” Graham said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.