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The Republican vision for the hugely popular U.S. federal pension system dominated Monday night's presidential debate in a state that is a magnet for retired Americans. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the party front-runner and critic of the program, came under a withering attack from his closest challenger.
Under attack from rival Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security in a campaign debate Monday night, declining to repeat earlier statements questioning the program's constitutionality and likening it to a "Ponzi scheme."
"A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away," Perry said as his cross-stage rival pressed him repeatedly to answer Romney's pointed questions.
The Texas governor counter-attacked quickly, accusing Romney of "trying to scare seniors" with his own comments on a program that tens of millions of Americans, including millions in Florida alone, rely on for part or even all of their retirement income.
Romney quoted others as saying the Texas governor's position on Social Security could spell defeat for the party as it tries to win the White House from Obama next year. Repeatedly, he pressed Perry to say whether he believes the program is unconstitutional. Just as insistently, Perry ducked.
Then he countered, quoting Romney as having said in his own book that if people did with their financing what had been done with Social Security receipts it would be a criminal offense.
"You've got to quote me correctly," Romney responded. "What I said was taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is criminal and it's wrong."
Social Security benefits are financed through a payroll tax that workers and their employers pay. According to the most recent independent forecasts, unless Congress enacts changes, benefits will have to be cut beginning in 2037.
The debate unfolded in the Florida city where Republicans will gather next summer to bestow the party nomination on a challenger to President Obama.
It was the second time in less than a week that Perry, the front-runner in opinion polls, and Romney, his closest pursuer, shared a stage with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah and businessman Herman Cain.
The two-hour debate was sponsored by Tea Party organizations and CNN, and Bachmann and Perry used their opening comments to stress their eagerness for support from the activists who helped propel Republican congressional candidates to victory in the 2010 elections.
This year, nearly all the Republican candidates have taken even more deeply conservative positions as they try to attract the primary election votes of the highly motivated tea party wing that insists on lower taxes and smaller government.
The current series of Republican debates is the first stage of the nominating process ahead of state-by-state party primary elections and caucus meetings that begin shortly after the New Year.
Obama is vulnerable next year because of the flagging U.S. economic recovery and continued high unemployment, still above 9 percent.
Differing visions of the role of government in fixing America's troubled economy have already sharply delineated the Republican field from Obama, who is pushing yet another massive package of federal intervention. Republicans are pushing for less government involvement, saying the private sector knows best how to right the economy.
Perry shot to the top of the Republican field shortly after announcing his candidacy last month and quickly overtook Bachmann, the one-time favorite of the tea party movement.
While Perry's straight-talking style and Texas swagger have become a hit with the tea party and conservatives, his Social Security position has left him vulnerable to attack from others in the Republican field, particularly Romney.
Social Security was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program adopted during the 1930's Great Depression. Under the system, workers and employers pay a percentage of wages into the federal system as a payroll tax that then funds modest pension payments upon retirement. Millions of Americans are dependent on the program, increasingly so as private sector employers have cut or stopped paying pensions as a reward for long years of service.
Perry contends the program is no longer viable because there are far more Americans receiving payments and fewer workers contribution as the population ages.
Florida's primary election, while still not set, could serve as a determining contest between Romney and Perry. They were widely expected to emerge about even from primary votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina earlier in the month.
Romney won an endorsement Monday from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who recently dropped out of the Republican presidential contest. People close to Perry's campaign said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would endorse the Texas governor and accompany him to Tampa.
Florida Republicans will have yet another chance to hear the candidates face off Sept. 22 in Orlando in advance of a three-day party gathering the ends with the Florida Straw Poll. The vote is largely a popularity contest that gauges support from the most conservative and motivated sector of the party.
This program aired on September 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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