TAMPA, Fla. — On the heels of a GOP debate where he reasserted his controversial belief that Social Security is a “monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme,” Gov. Rick Perry heads today to Florida, a big state, rich in delegates, with a key early primary — and home to many older voters.
For his leading opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the timing couldn’t be better. In advance of Perry’s first Florida swing, which starts with tonight’s co-hosted CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa and extends to a fundraising swing through Miami, Romney’s campaign has been papering the state with fliers calling Perry “reckless and wrong” on Social Security. “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?” the flier asks.
But some Florida political observers, from Republican strategists to political scientists, suggest Romney's messaging may play more to Florida’s retiree-heavy reputation — roughly a third of GOP primary voters here are over 65 — than to its reality. Perry's rhetoric won’t hurt him in Florida, they say, so long as he follows it up with a remedy, and soon.
“Perry can say the current system is fundamentally broken,” said Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “But he has to bridge to, ‘And here’s my solution to protect what we’ve promised a generation of seniors.’”
Perry’s campaign staff says Romney’s criticism of the Texas governor’s Social Security stance is a scare tactic that’s indicative of a “pattern of inconsistency.” Perry spokesman Mark Miner said that in Romney’s own book, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness, he compares Social Security to a criminal enterprise that has defrauded the American people. Perry doesn’t want to eliminate Social Security, Miner said — he wants to fix it.
“Perry has been consistent in addressing issues in an honest, open way,” Miner said. “Romney has been running for president for the last five years, and has taken multiple positions on this and a long string of issues.”
Perry will have ample time to refine his message in Florida. After a two-day stint this week, he returns next week for fundraisers from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale to Orlando, where he and the other GOP contenders will reconvene for yet another debate. Perry will participate in Florida's GOP straw poll, called the "Presidency 5," on Sept. 24. But he won't go up against Romney, who has decided not to participate.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said that even though Florida is considered an "old" state, 48 percent of registered voters are under age 50. Its seniors are “healthier and wealthier” on average. And while Social Security is clearly held dear by the people who rely on it, she said, “a high percentage of Floridians think something needs to be done” to reform it.
“We’re used to bold language in this state,” she said of Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” talk. “You just don’t hear it used in the same sentence with Social Security very often.”
Doug Guetzloe, a radio talk show host and co-founder of the Florida Tea Party, said he and many others find that language refreshing. The jury is still out on Perry, he said, particularly as Tea Party loyalists learn about his political stumbles, from mandating the HPV vaccine for young girls to backing the infamous toll road project, the Trans-Texas Corridor. But his statements on Social Security certainly don’t make them wary, Guetzloe said.
“When he makes statements like Social Security being a ‘Ponzi scheme,” he’s right, and a lot of us agree with that,” Guetzloe said. “It’s about time someone had the guts to say it like it is.”
Wilson, the Republican strategist, said Romney’s approach — portraying Perry as a threat to benefits for senior citizens — is nothing new in the Sunshine State. In every Florida election, as far back as he can remember, a Republican candidate has been accused of wanting to do away with Social Security. But he said normally it’s the Democratic candidate doing the accusing.
“The message has been, Republican candidate X wants to kill your grandmother, take her Social Security away, cook her on a barbecue, burn her house down and charge her for it,” Wilson said. “You can only cry wolf so many times.”
Wilson said he thinks this approach will backfire on Romney, because Florida’s older voters are familiar with this debate, and understand that the status quo doesn’t work.
“Do they want to lose Social Security? Of course not,” Wilson said. “But do they want their kids and grandkids to inherit a bankrupt nation? They don’t want that either.”