MIAMI (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Wednesday questioned how Rick Perry would fix Social Security as the focus of the GOP presidential race turns to senior citizen-rich Florida this week.
In a likely preview of a Thursday debate in Orlando, Romney took issue with Perry's contention in a recently published book that each of the 50 states would better handle the huge federal program.
"In my opinion, this does not work in any way, shape or form," Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said at a town hall meeting attended by about 75 people." Romney also asserted that Perry called Social Security "unconstitutional" and added: "I believe it is constitutional. I think that's proven and settled."
While Perry indeed roundly criticized Social Security in his book, he didn't use the word unconstitutional. Rather, Perry branded the program the "best example" of the "fraud" and "bad disease" spread by Washington in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Perry furthermore criticized the Supreme Court of that era for "abdicating its role as the protector of constitutional federalism."
Romney's criticism marks the start of an important three-day stretch for the GOP presidential field in the perennial battleground state of Florida. There's Thursday's debate, with events sponsored by the social conservative group Faith and Freedom Coalition stretching into Friday and a nonbinding test vote of party faithful on Saturday.
Perry, the Texas governor and current GOP front-runner in recent national polls, was also in Florida on Wednesday at a pair of private fundraisers, one in Fort Lauderdale and one in Palm Beach County.
While Perry made clear in his book what he thinks about Social Security, he hasn't provided specifics about what he would do if elected president to the program that millions of senior citizens depend on.
When asked in a recent interview with Time magazine how he would change Social Security, Perry said many ideas should be on the table. "The idea that we're going to write a Social Security reform plan today is a bit of a stretch from my perspective," he said.
Romney pressed that issue at his event early Wednesday.
Two large screens displayed questions about Perry's position on Social Security, such as what would happen if some states chose not to have any such system, and whether people would have to switch plans if they moved from state to state.
"There are a lot of questions I'd like to have answered to understand the nature of that plan," Romney said.
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan accused Romney of "sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens."
"Gov. Perry has been clear that he will protect benefits for those at and nearing retirement and work with citizens, experts and elected leaders to fix Social Security financing for future generations," Sullivan said in an e-mail statement.
Romney said he, too, would propose financial fixes for Social Security, most likely a slight increase in the retirement age for younger workers and a decrease in the plan's growth rate for higher-income retirees.
"It can't keep going forever the way it is," Romney said.
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