ORLANDO, Fla. -- Hours before the sixth Republican presidential debate, the mood among the crowd was one of giddy anticipation. The early disappointments with the field have faded. The political landscape has blossomed. And despite the occasional sharp elbow thrown between the candidates, the prospect of retaking the White House has limited the bruised egos and hurt feelings.
"Spanky McFarland could be running, and if he could beat Obama I'd vote for him," explained Neil Moore, a Chicago Republican and 30-year union man, who stood outside the Orlando convention center.
Spanky McFarland ain't on the ballot. But Moore's point is the same. Among the issues he's considered when it comes to choosing a candidate, electability is paramount. That's why, as he puts it, his "mind" is telling him to vote for Mitt Romney while his "heart says" Rick Perry.
"I like Ron Paul," Moore adds. "I think he is a very smart man. But I don't think his approaches are very good. I don't know how else to say it."
Moore didn't have to say much more. The crowd at Thursday night's presidential debate echoed those sentiments. Where they disagreed was on what actually made a candidate electable. Romney certainly has the polish to take on Obama. But that wasn't necessarily a strong selling point.
"Listen," said Sherri Ortega of Florida, channeling a line she's heard ad nauseam on conservative talk radio, "we can never be good enough for the Democrats to vote for us so stop trying to be like Democrats."
"Romney has had six years to sharpen up his stances," she added. Perry, she said, should be given some "time to think about them."
By "them" Ortega means, most specifically, Social Security, over which Romney and Perry have had some of their sharpest disputes. The former Massachusetts governor has insisted that Perry's talk of Ponzi schemes, illegality, and state-run retirement programs makes him vulnerable in a general election contest. Perry counters that he's simply talking straight.
"It's fixable," says Moore, apparently siding with Romney on this one. "Raise the retirement age. Lower the benefit levels over time to adjust for longer life expectancy. Give people an option to choose [a private plan]. And keep your freaking hands out of it. Quit stealing from it. ... I like the system. I want it improved."
But not everyone thinks Social Security reform is that simple or, for that matter, all that toxic to discuss.
"It's a total Ponzi scheme, and I'm glad Perry said it," said a Florida woman who remained nameless. "Things were fine before Social Security was put in place. People took care of each other. Communities looked after each other."
Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos, speaking in an interview with The Huffington Post, noted that the program was "not the third rail it used to be."
Haridopolos, who is not affiliated with any campaign, pointed to the willingness of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to talk about reforming Social Security during his successful campaign in 2010. While Perry may have gone too far in some of his rhetoric, Haridopolos added, there is widespread agreement with him on the need for changes to the system.
"If the governor had his chance, he'd probably walk back some of the comments about it being a Ponzi scheme, but we need a real plan for Social Security," Haridopolos said.
For others, Perry's bluntness was a virtue in its own right. Steve Hogan, a 65-year-old from Palm Beach County, voted for Romney in the 2008 primary but said he was leaning toward Perry this time around.
"He's basically honest," Hogan said of the Texas governor, "and people realize you can't skew your words to make yourself look better. He may say them a little awkwardly, but he says what he means. I think American people are ready for that."
Gaston Larranaga, a 66-year-old who came to the United States from Uruguay at age 23, joined the Navy and then worked for IBM, also said he was backing Perry despite having voted for Romney in 2008.
"I'm on Social Security, and I'm worried about my children not having their thing," Larranaga said. "People are smarter right now. There are a lot of things being said about all the old people. I don't buy it."
"Perry is guilty of a little flashy language," Larranaga added. "I think he can sell it."
Unlike Hogan or Larranaga, the majority of the roughly dozen attendees interviewed said they had yet to make up their minds about which candidate they'd support. But even among the undecided masses, the basic demand for the Republican field was the same.
"I just want someone to take it to Obama," said Ortega.
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