Now that the "Perry-Romney Show" is onstage and the rest of the GOP presidential field is either waiting in the wings or already headed for the exits, it's time for the two leading men to duke it out. At the moment, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who rocketed to the front of the field days after entering the race, leads former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in that elusive excitement factor that every campaign tries so hard to harness. According to the Gallup polling organization, while Perry and Romney's favorables are in the 70s among Republicans, Perry's "strongly favorable" is close to 30, while Romeny's is a languid 15; in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Perry led Romney by 18 to 24 points. Considering Perry's core tea-party support and that bloc's near-monopoly on political energy at the moment, this is not all that surprising. But it does mean the Romney campaign will be directing all its efforts and resources in the coming weeks to chipping away at the Perry momentum, and looks like they've already picked their sweet spot: Social Security.
Much like when Perry handed pundits an easy gaffe with his "treasonous" Bernanke remarks, he's also given Romney a plump target with his comments on Social Security. He called it a "Ponzi scheme" twice in last week's Republican presidential debate and has used the phrase a number of times before and since. In his latest book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington, he wrote that: "Social Security is something that we've been forced to accept for more than 70 years now ... at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government." While not directly calling the program unconstitutional, he's certainly implying that rather strongly.
Seeing an opening, Romney has come out swinging. Speaking at a reception Thursday in the Wells Fargo building in downtown Salt Lake City — home base for that other Mormon presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman — he said:
Governor Perry is a good guy [but] he's not going to get elected and the reason is no one in the history of this country has got elected by attacking Social Security. Social Security is a good thing. It is a good and moral thing to care for people who throughout their lives have put money aside, counting on that as a retirement plan. [...] What [Perry] did last night [in the debate] was cement the fact that he cannot be elected president of the United States. And so, as that sinks in, how are his remarks last night going to be seen in Florida? Not so well. And we have to win Florida to win the White House.
Speaking of Florida, Romney's campaign is distributing flyers there on the eve of tomorrow's Republican debate in Tampa, attacking Perry's own words on Social Security: "By any measure, Social Security is a failure." Opposite that is Romney's take: "Ensuring the program that millions of Americans rely on will be there for our children and grandchildren." It's a safe bet that Romney will pound this difference between himself and Perry hard in the debate tomorrow. (Less sure is whether any of the other candidates will get any airtime.) And Romney's not the only GOP luminary taking Perry's Social Security position on — Karl Rove, certainly no friend to the Texas governor, has called his views on the program "toxic."
Now it waits to be seen whether this gambit by Romney pays off. His more moderate platform will likely prove a hindrance in this tea-party-dominated primary season, but he still seems the GOP's best chance at defeating Obama: A Quinnipiac University poll out less than two weeks ago had Romney in a dead heat with Obama, Perry trailing the pair by three points. If Romney can convince voters that Perry would gut, or even abolish, Social Security, which supports millions of elderly Americans in both parties, that might bring a fresh subset of the party into play to counteract the tea party's slash-and-burn agenda.
Romney goes after Perry on Social Security [WP]
Romney: Perry can't win nomination attacking Social Security [Salt Lake Tribune]
Perry, Romney Equally Well-Liked, but Perry Stirs More Passion [Gallup]