WASHINGTON -- One of the central moments of Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate was the exchange on Social Security between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, in which the former Massachusetts governor said Perry's views on the popular entitlement program made him unfit to be the GOP's nominee. Several conservative groups disagree, however, saying that Perry's comments are a refreshing injection into the debate on the issue.
During the debate, Perry reaffirmed his past statements that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."
Romney replied that such rhetoric amounts to a belief that Social Security should be abolished.
"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."
But several conservative groups welcomed Perry's comments.
"It is refreshing candor from a straight-shooting Texan," said Jim Martin, president of the 60 Plus Association, a conservative alternative to the AARP. When reached by The Huffington Post, he was on the Tea Party Express bus on the way to Charlotte, N.C.
"If you really look at [Social Security] dispassionately, it is a Ponzi scheme," Martin said. "Rick Perry can be given an A-plus for calling it like it is."
“Any responsible person recognizes that Social Security offers a terrible expected rate of return for young people today, and Governor Perry’s remarks acknowledge that fact," said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.
"Younger workers deserve a choice about how their Social Security funds should be invested, rather than having Washington mismanage their funds the same way they mismanage federal finances overall," Keller added. "Governor Perry is right about what the future of Social Security will be if the program is not seriously reformed."
After the debate, Romney adviser Stuart Stevens doubled down on the governor's remarks, saying Perry's position was "a disqualifying position."
"We're talking about every House candidate that runs, every Senate candidate that runs, would have to run on the Perry plan to kill Social Security," said Stevens.
Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, said Perry is clearly testing the conventional wisdom that politicians should not talk about changing entitlement programs.
"Any Republican that thinks they're going to skate past the issues of Social Security and Medicare and the massive unfunded liabilities of these entitlement programs is naive, because you saw it in [the NY-26 special election] and you're going to see it happen again, where the Democrats want to defend the status quo and they want to scare seniors with imaginary stories about Republicans wanting to end these programs. In fact, guys like Rep. Paul Ryan [(R-Wis.)] want to reform the programs," he said.
"My frustration for many years is that Social Security is a classic example of an issue where Republicans hide from the conversation and Democrats demagogue the issue," he added.
Tea Party activist Eric Odom is still undecided about who he will support in the Republican presidential primary, but he said with Wednesday night's debate, Perry "got a step closer to gaining my support."
"Perry's honesty on the social security 'Ponzi scheme' is a breath of fresh air for me. I'm 31 years old and I have no doubt my payments into the system will never come back to me under the current system," he told The Huffington Post.
Odom underscored the importance of the issue for him, noting that one of the main reasons he became involved in the political process in 2004 was because of President George W. Bush's "tough talk on social security reform."
"Rick Perry didn't lose any voters," he said. "He instead gained voters and energized his base with a healthy dose of straight talk."
Whether Perry wants to get rid of Social Security remains unclear. After the debate on Wednesday, his communications director Ray Sullivan refused to explicitly deny that Perry wants to dissolve the program, despite repeated attempts by The Huffington Post to clarify the governor's stance.