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Perry's Social Security Stance Lets Romney Make Electability Argument

Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Republican presidential candidates' debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011.
Jae C. Hong
Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Republican presidential candidates' debate at the Reagan Library, Sept. 7, 2011.

Social Security must truly have near magical transformative powers if it can make a self-professed conservative almost sound like a liberal.

As we witnessed at Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate Mitt Romney, the former frontrunner for his party's nomination, has determined that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the present frontrunner, has left himself hugely vulnerable on the Social Security issue. And Romney plans to make him pay.

Perry, who says he's running to make the federal government inconsequential in the lives of citizens, attacked Social Security in his book "Fed Up" as a "Ponzi scheme" and "failure." He stuck to that sentiment during the debate at the Reagan library.

Romney, for his part, defended the program during the debate and, again, on the Sean Hannity radio show Thursday.

Romney told Hannity:

"Gov. Perry in his book says Social Security has been forced on us and by no measure is Social Security anything but a failure.That is not being against how you finance Social Security. That is being against Social Security altogether. One, in my view, that's wrong. I am for Social Security. I want to save Social Security. It is an essential safety net for the American people. And number two, it is terrible politics. If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party."

That second point is key to Romney's presidential hopes. It's the electability argument which is his best chance for getting the nomination.

The former Massachusetts governor's failure to stir much excitement among many Republicans is what left the door open for the more folksy Perry to enter the race and zoom to the head of the pack.

But Perry's views on Social Security and Medicare, among other issues, are to the right of even many Republican voters and could be a big liability during a general election against President Obama who has governed as a centrist.

So perhaps Romney's best opportunity to recapture frontrunner status and, eventually, the nomination is to point out how difficult it would be for Perry to oppose Social Security and win Florida as well as other battleground states. Republicans, after all, want someone who can beat Obama.

While Romney may not share Perry's open hostility to Social Security, Romney also doesn't share the view of House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi that Social Security is virtually untouchable. He's open to private accounts and raising the eligibility age, he told Hannity.

The contest between Romney and Perry over Social Security has opened a rare split in the Republican Party.

There are clearly conservatives who support Perry's view of Social Security, like Washington Examiner editorial writer Phillip Klein:

Romney's decision to pile on suggests that he's willing to play the "granny card" against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee...

... Romney is wrong — Social Security is forced upon us, and it is a failure. It is a scam foisted upon younger Americans who must fork over payroll taxes to fund current retirees and other government services with no prospect of actually recouping what they put into the system.

But there are also many Republicans who don't, who like the program pretty much the way it is and get nervous when politicians start talking about reining in the program. Those are the people Romney is talking to when he defends the program. If he can ride the third rail of American politics to his party's nomination, he'll do it.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.