SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- There was one thing and one thing only on the minds and lips of Mitt Romney's aides and advisers after Wednesday night's Republican presidential primary debate: Texas Gov. Rick Perry's position on Social Security.
Perry doubled down during the debate on his past statements of Social Security as a "ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." But Romney -- the former Massachusetts governor -- and his campaign looked past the rhetoric, calling that a distraction from the substance of Perry's position on the issue, which they said amounts to being in favor of ending the program.
A top Perry aide refused, under repeated questions from The Huffington Post, to rule out the idea that Perry would favor dissolving altogether the 76-year-old program that pays out benefits to seniors.
During the debate, Romney pointed to Perry's 2010 book, "Fed Up!" in which he raised the example of three Texas counties that opted out of Social Security before municipal governments were barred from doing so in 1983. Perry has gone even further than suggesting, as he did in his book, that states or municipalities should be allowed to opt out.
“I think, let the states decide if that’s what’s best for their cities,” Perry said on CNN last fall.
During the debate at the Reagan Library hosted by MSNBC and Politico, Romney pounced.
"The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney said. "We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need, and our seniors have the need of Social Security. I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure. We save Social Security."
Notably, Perry did not contest Romney's characterization, which Romney aides continued to pound on in the media spin room after the debate. Top strategist Stuart Stevens even said Perry was "wrong morally."
"This is going to be a really big deal," said Lanhee Chan, Romney's policy director. "To make the argument that Social Security effectively has to be eliminated is a complete non starter."
"You've got millions of Americans who depend on Social Security," Chan added. "He's going to have a really tough time explaining why he wants to kill Social Security."
Perry's camp was defiant under fire.
"[Romney] can pound all he wants," Perry communications director Ray Sullivan said. "That does say something about how he feels about his condition in his race, I think. The governor will roll out policy ideas and solutions to the nation's ills throughout the course of the campaign."
But Sullivan refused to explicitly deny that Perry wants to "end" the program, despite repeated attempts by HuffPost to clarify Perry's stance.
"You're going to need to get the Romney campaign to explain their positions," Sullivan said, when asked for an answer about whether Perry was being misrepresented.
After a detailed explanation of what the Romney campaign was saying, and which portion of Perry's book the campaign was pointing to, Sullivan again refused to answer: "Talk to them," he said.
Asked a third time whether Perry's position was being misstated, Sullivan again said obliquely: "The governor stated his position tonight, he stated his position in the past and he will state his position in the future."
When asked why he would not just say that Perry does not want to end the program, Sullivan responded: "I'm not going to parse his words. You'll need to talk to them about what they're saying and why. The governor's made his position clear that he wants to fix Social Security."
And asked a final time why he would not directly respond to the Romney camp's criticism, Sullivan said: "I'm not justifying their position." Never did he say, simply, that Perry does not want to end the program.
Perry spokesman Rob Black -- a more junior member of the campaign -- did say the Romney campaign was misrepresenting the Texas governor by saying he wanted to end Social Security.
"The governor's never said that," Black told HuffPost.
In a way, Perry's campaign could be attempting to set a trap for Romney, hoping that he sinks his teeth so deeply into defending Social Security that he comes to represent -- for Republican primary voters -- the face of the status quo when it comes to entitlement spending. Entitlements are the largest driver of the nation's long-term debt obligations, an issue of great concern for Republicans.
Perry's top strategist, David Carney, made it clear that he wants Social Security reform to be a centerpiece of their campaign.
"It's naive for the political elite to think that Social Security can't be discussed, can't be fixed, can't be done better, in this new modern era. It's just crazy," Carney said.
But if Perry is seeking to draw Romney into a debate on entitlements, he is placing a risky bet, especially when the primary campaign looks very likely to be decided in Florida, which will be the major test after voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina caucus and vote on a nominee.
There is some evidence that entitlements are not the third rail they once were for Republican voters. Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was elected in 2010 after running a campaign in which he talked about the need to raise the retirement age for Social Security and to reduce cost of living adjustment increases per year.
But Carney professed ignorance of Rubio's position on the issue in 2010.
"I have no idea what he did," Carney said.
Nonetheless, it was clear that Carney -- a fearsome competitor known for his craftiness -- has thought about the risks of taking a stand on this issue.
"It's clear from listening to people around the country, they want an open and honest discussion about this," Carney said. "Tinker around the edges, yeah that gets you through the next election. It doesn't help the kids."
"Your kids," he said to another reporter, "are going to get screwed unless we have a system that addresses that and figures out what happens when they retire."
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