WASHINGTON – Rick Perry's explosive comments and past writings about Social Security have delighted Mitt Romney supporters and some advisers, who see the Texas governor as having made himself more vulnerable in one very crucial early Republican presidential primary state: Florida.
Some in the Romney camp believe that Perry's recent remark that Social Security is a "ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" will cost him support among seniors in the retiree-heavy Sunshine State, which is very likely to determine the primary winner. If Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Perry wins Iowa next winter, followed by a Romney win in New Hampshire and a Perry win in South Carolina, the large and expensive contest in Florida, which comes next on the primary calendar, will either lift Romney above his rival if he wins, or mortally wound him if he loses.
The comments could also be used to bolster what will likely become the former Massachusetts governor's chief argument against Perry, that the Texan is too conservative and too brash to beat President Obama in the general election.
Certainly polls continue to show that most Americans want to retain the benefits they currently receive from the federal government, or if they do not yet receive any, they would like to avoid cutting future payouts.
However, the results of the most recent high-profile statewide race in Florida show that the conventional wisdom about the "third rail of politics" may not apply like it used to. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won his election in 2010 despite saying in the primary and general elections that he supported raising the retirement age and that the cost of living increases in Social Security payments would likely have to be reduced.
When Rubio came out in support of these ideas in a March 28, 2010, debate with primary opponent Charlie Crist -- then the state's governor -- the Crist campaign thought they had Rubio by the throat.
"The conventional wisdom was, for instance with Marco, 'Oh he's a guy from Florida, with its demographically top heavy senior population. Obviously this will defeat him. He can't win. It will destroy him, et cetera,'" said Rick Wilson, a Florida political consultant who worked with Rubio's campaign. "And it turned out to have almost no net impact on the campaign."
Some say a better candidate than Crist -- who was doing so badly by the spring of 2010 that he decided to run in the general election as an independent -- may have gained ground on Rubio with his Social Security attack ads if he was not hamstrung by personal issues and if he was not running against someone as charismatic, youthful and good looking as Rubio.
And one Democratic candidate, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, did see his poll numbers increase after he ran a TV ad highlighting Republican Rand Paul's support for a $2,000 deductible for Medicare patients. But Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have argued that campaign attacks against him and others based on their support for overhauling entitlement programs did not work in the last election cycle.
Wilson and others said Rubio won because the electorate has shifted and no longer reacts allergically to any politician who discusses changes to entitlement programs.
"For 25 years, the Democrats have beat the same drum over and over again: Republicans want to kill granny, Republicans want to put your kids out on the ice floe, Republicans hate everybody, they want to take away your Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, blah blah blah," Wilson said. "Well, you can only cry wolf so many times … First it worked, then people questioned whether the rhetoric was there, then they doubted it and now you see a large number of Americans, including seniors, who realize the current system is not sustainable."
While Social Security does face huge structural challenges because of the number of baby boomers entering the system in the coming years, at a time when birth rates in the U.S. are barely at replacement rate levels, polls still show large percentages of Americans who want to maintain benefit levels. Yet the same surveys also show that large numbers of Americans realize the programs are in financial trouble, and that many support overhauling them.
A Pew Poll in July showed that 60 percent of respondents thought preserving benefit levels was more important than reducing the deficit. But in the same poll, 77 percent of respondents said Social Security's finances are "troubled," and a majority of respondents said each of the big three entitlement programs needed to be either "completely rebuilt" or sustain "major changes."
Sensing a shift, Republican politicians have amplified their desire to tweak Social Security and make radical changes to Medicare, while shifting most of the responsibility for Medicaid programs -- which help primarily the poor and indigent -- to the states. Rubio himself said in a speech just over a week ago that entitlement programs have "weakened us as a people," arguing that local communities -- families, neighbors, friends, "churches and synagogues" -- should do more to care for those who need it.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and younger brother of former President George W. Bush, sidestepped a question about whether Perry will be hurt by his comments, but did indicate that he values specific plans to fix the problem over rhetoric.
"Social Security as we know it is not sustainable. Thankfully, there are solutions that can make it solvent and sustainable. I am hopeful that Republican candidates will offer proposals to do that," Bush told HuffPost.
And Al Cardenas, a former state party chair and currently the chairman of the American Conservative Union, acknowledged that Perry's comments were "overly passionate" but said he found little fault with them.
"Responsible leaders will acknowledge that the fiscal and actuarial realities of Social Security necessitate significant reform in order to save it," Cardenas said in an email. "Childish political ‘got-you’ games by those refusing to acknowledge that are far more grievous to America than any overly passionate rhetoric by those seeking to convey the truth about how critical entitlement reform is."
Patricia Sullivan, a Tea Party leader who oversees the Florida Tea Party Network, a coalition of 70 groups in the state, said that she and her fellow activists are waging an information campaign about the fiscal state of Social Security and other entitlement programs.
"As we continue to become a more educated electorate, the more people are educated about how our Social Security system is currently working, then the more people will understand that it is unsustainable and we do need to find a solution," said Sullivan, who is seeking to back a candidate by the end of September. "That's really a lot of where the Tea Party is engaged right now and that's education."
"Whether or not that kind of talk from Perry backfires or not remains to be seen," Sullivan said, but added that Perry "has a lot of other issue as well."
"As we continue to educate the Tea Party movement, I don't think Perry will be seen in quite the favorable light he may be seen in currently," she said.
The Romney campaign hasn't yet engaged with Perry on the issue publicly. Yet private conversations with advisers and supporters revealed a desire to go after Perry on the basis of his recent comments, as well as for things he wrote in his 2010 book "Fed Up," which critics say suggest he would do away with the program all together.
“Social security is something that we’ve been forced to accept for more than 70 years now," Perry wrote in the book. "And there stands a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal, in stark contrast to the mythical notion of salvation to which it has wrongly been attached for too long, all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”
Perry also signaled support for making Social Security a state-run program, rather than one that is administered by the federal government, during an interview with The Daily Beast last November.
"I don’t think our founding fathers when they were putting the term 'general welfare' in [the Constitution] were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address," Perry said.
More recently, Perry's campaign communications chief, Ray Sullivan, said that Perry's words in "Fed Up" were" not meant to reflect the governor’s current views on how to fix the program."
Sullivan told the Wall Street Journal that "Fed Up" was "a review and critique of 50 years of federal excesses, not in any way as a 2012 campaign blueprint or manifesto." But days later, Perry spokesman Mark Miner told CBS News that the book "reflects his understanding of what the role of government should look like in our lives."
Then, during a campaign trip in Iowa, Perry made his "ponzi scheme" comments.
The equivocations may reveal concern about how Perry will be received in Florida, where the stakes will be high. But Perry's campaign did not respond to queries about whether they think his language will hurt him.
Wilson dismissed the idea that poll data showing support for continued benefit levels means seniors will balk at reform efforts by Republicans.
"Self-interest is always self-interest. When you ask people … they don't want to lose their benefits," Wilson said. "But they also don't want to bankrupt the country for their grandkids."