Texas Gov. Rick Perry faces his biggest test as a presidential candidate tonight. With his national momentum stalled amid questions about whether his brand of hard-line conservatism is right for the nation, Perry will again be the target of his GOP rivals at the debate in Orlando.
It's likely that the focus will be on Social Security, a huge issue in retiree-filled Florida, which will hold a key nominating primary early next year. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has already fired several barrages at Perry over the issue. Romney zeroed in on Perry's call for shifting the popular program from a national one to a program run on the state level. In a preview of his likely attack strategy tonight, Romney told an audience in Miami yesterday, "Would it be Florida's responsibility to meet the Social Security needs of everyone who comes to Florida? Well, that wouldn't work. Would people choose states to live in, particularly as they get older, based on who had the bet Social Security plan? Would you have people move around trying to find better Social Security or a better deal?"
Romney wasn't alone. Several prominent Florida Republicans also attacked Perry, with Rep. Tom Rooney saying, "Social Security is a contract the American people have made with the federal government. The federal government needs to honor this contract." And Rep. Connie Mack said Perry's plan would hurt retirees and others. "Would states like Florida have to choose between honoring our promises to seniors and paying for education and public safety?" Mack said. [See photos of the GOP contenders on the campaign trail.]
Romney also favors changes in Social Security to keep it solvent well into the future, and in the past endorsed a plan to partially privatize the system. But Romney argues that he wouldn't go as far as Perry in making it a state program. [Read: Five Ways to Reform Social Security.]
A Perry spokesman said Romney was "sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens." Perry also told Fox News, in an apparent reference to Romney, that the GOP needs to nominate someone with very clear conservative views, not "Obama-lite." See Politico story.