Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Rick Perry fought to protect his frontrunner status in the Republican presidential contest, fending off criticism from rivals of his statements about Social Security in a debate tonight highlighting the campaign’s increasingly combative tone.
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took aim at Perry’s characterization of the program as a “Ponzi scheme,” a stance some Republicans say could undercut Perry’s chances in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Romney pressed Perry to say whether he still believes the program is unconstitutional, as he termed it in a book he wrote, and should be run by the states.
Perry said he wouldn’t change the program for current retirees or those soon to become eligible, accusing Romney of “trying to scare seniors” instead of having “a legitimate conversation with Americans about how to fix that program.”
Romney quickly fired back, “The term ‘Ponzi scheme’ is what scared seniors.”
Perry has surged to the top in national polls of Republican-leaning voters since entering the race a month ago, displacing Romney as the leader and cutting into support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Tonight’s debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa is taking place five days after Perry and Romney sparred at a similar forum at the library and burial place of party icon Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, California. Social Security emerged as a flashpoint in that debate, with Perry arguing that it’s time for “some provocative language” about the program.
Perry sought to tone down his position before the debate began, writing in an op-ed article in USA Today that benefits must be protected for current and future recipients.
Tonight, he called for a “thoughtful conversation” about the program, while nothing that others had used similar language as he has to describe the program.
The debate, sponsored by CNN News and the Tea Party Express, featured questions from fiscally conservative activists.
Bachmann, a heroine of the Tea Party movement, is working to win back the support of the activists who had fueled a rise in the polls for her before Perry entered the race.
She highlighted her fiscally conservative credentials tonight, touting her vocal opposition in Congress to the health care, financial regulation and economic stimulus laws supported by the Obama administration.
“It’s easy to turn around this economy, you just have the backbone to do it,” she said.
Bachmann is seeking to regain traction as a viable candidate as the poll suggests the race is becoming a two-way contest between Romney and Perry.
In a CNN/ORC International poll released today, Perry led in the Republican race with support from 30 percent of Americans surveyed, followed by Romney with 18 percent. Bachmann received 4 percent, placing seventh. Those running ahead of her included former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the party’s 2009 vice presidential nominee who hasn’t said yet whether she will run for the White House.
Also participating in the debate were Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and businessman Herman Cain.
Series of Endorsements
Before tonight’s debate, Romney and Perry released a series of endorsements aimed at highlighting their backing within the party.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race after losing the Aug. 13 Republican Straw Poll in Iowa, endorsed Romney and accepted a position as the campaign’s national co-chairman.
“Alone among the contenders, he possesses the unique qualifications to confront and master our severe economic predicament,” Pawlenty said of Romney in a news release.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will back Perry, CNN reported today, giving the Texas governor his first major endorsement.
The candidates heaped criticism on Obama, attacking the $447 billion job-creation plan his administration sent to Congress today.
Democrats worry that Obama, 50, is politically vulnerable in next year’s election with the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent last month and approval ratings near lows of his presidency.
Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984 after the rate had dropped more than three percentage points during the previous two years he was in office.
The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicts a rate at 8.6 percent in the third quarter of next year, just prior to the election.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Tampa, Florida, at email@example.com; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington, at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
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