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Social Security Debate Exposes Generational Divide

With his opponents still taking aim at his comments on Social Security, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday will go into his third debate with an opportunity to defend a strategy that could pit young voters against old ones.

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During the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida last week, Gov. Rick Perry told young voters he's “on their side” when it comes to Social Security.

"It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me," Perry said. "But no one's had the courage to stand up and say, here is how we're going to reform it. We're going to transform it for those in those mid-career ages."

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Perry’s message appears to be resonating with some young Republicans. Jordan Wilson, a student at Liberty University in Virginia, joined about 10,000 other students on Sept. 14 to hear Perry speak on campus.

"Well, I think that's something that college students are really concerned about," Wilson said. "Kind of looking at it in our perspective, right now we're paying into the system, and the question is, is it going to be there 30 to 40 years down the road when we retire?"

Politicians have long coveted — and often later given up on — the elusive youth vote, a tough demographic to motivate.

"That is not true with the millennial generation — they vote," said political commentator Margaret Hoover, who has been researching people under the age of 30 for her new book American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party.

"They were 18 percent of the electorate in the 2008," Hoover said. "If they vote in the same numbers, 65 million of them will be eligible to vote in the 2012, which will make them 24 percent of the electorate."

Perry's message on Social Security might be something that young people can get behind, and it’s not just younger people who like the governor’s tough talk. He's also getting support from middle-aged voters like Florida Tea Party member Billie Tucker.

"Well, his statement was, it's a Ponzi scheme; he didn't say, I'm getting rid of it," Tucker said. "Our statement is, it was a Ponzi scheme. For crying out loud, those are the facts."

But even for a Tea Party leader, there could be a deal-breaker.

"If you immediately affect the people that are on it and they don't have a way to take care of themselves, that's it, No. 1," Tucker said.

By the time Perry got to Iowa last week, older Republicans were openly expressing their concern about the governor's thoughts on Social Security. Dorothy Adamson turned out in Jefferson, Iowa, to hear more.

"Well, someone I told tonight I was coming and she said, 'well, I won't vote for him... He's against Social Security,'" Adamson said.

The city of Jefferson received no answers that night, as Perry made no mention of Social Security. Hoover said it's not just the older generation that wants more specifics; millennials would rather see a government program fixed than eliminated, she said.

"The millennial generation doesn't think government is the problem," Hoover said. "They think government should be part of the solution. And if you're running the government and it's not working, then you're the problem."

Beyond calling for a “national conversation,” Perry has not laid out a plan for Social Security reform. With his opponents ready to pounce, he may provide more details during Thursday night's debate.

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