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[caption width="250" caption=" Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry gesture during a Republican debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) "][/caption]

CHARLES BABINGTON

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — 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.

The debate unfolded in the Florida city where Republicans will gather next summer to bestow the party nomination on a challenger to President Barack 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 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.,

Bachmann said she “brought the voice of the tea party to the United States Congress as a founder of the tea party caucus.”

Perry said he was glad to be at the debate with the Tea Party Express.

So much for the niceties.

Within minutes, Romney moved aggressively to press Perry on Social Security, saying the front-runner had previously called it a Ponzi Scheme, an absolute failure and unconstitutional.

Perry did not dispute the characterization. In his recent book he called the retirement income program an example of a federal initiative that is “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government.”

He said retirees and near-retirees are assured of receiving the benefits they’ve been promised — and should be — but changes are needed to make sure younger workers have any sort of benefit when they near retirement.

Romney wasn’t satisfied with that, quoting 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.


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