Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry sounded a more temperate note on Social Security Thursday as he greeted Florida Republican convention delegates with a promise to secure and fix the pension program that he has called a Ponzi scheme.
Analysts say the Texas governor has no choice but to tone it down as he goes head-to-head with rival Mitt Romney in what could be a protracted battle for the Republican nomination in retirement haven Florida, the most populous of the presidential swing states.
In a letter distributed to 3,500 Republican delegates who will vote for their favorite candidate in a nonbinding straw poll Saturday, Perry said, "I will keep our promise to seniors so their Social Security and Medicare benefits are secure.
"But I won't allow these programs to collapse under their own fiscal weight for future generations. ... I will fix entitlement programs."
Perry, who has moved past former Massachusetts governor Romney to take the lead in polls in the 2012 Republican nominating race, has previously called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and a failure and said states should be able to opt out.
Mac Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and campaign manager for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, said Perry's earlier statements, such as calling Social Security unconstitutional, have been too dogmatic and careless to play well among graying and risk-averse Floridians.
"I don't think it works in Governor Perry's favor," said Stipanovich, who is not involved with any of the campaigns.
"Any time you talk about reforming Social Security, it requires an explanation that is simultaneously reassuring. Calling it a Ponzi scheme probably lacks nuance."
Florida has more Social Security recipients than any other state except California, and a third of Florida's registered voters are 60 or older. Because they show up at the polls in greater numbers than any other age group, they wield outsized clout.
"The senior vote is probably more important than any other voting bloc in the Republican Party primary," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason Dixon Polling. "The Social Security issue, I think it will hurt Perry.
"He's going to be under a lot of scrutiny from senior voters," Coker said.
'FEET TO THE FIRE'
Romney has seized on the issue during two previous debates among the eight major Republican candidates, and is expected to do so again at Thursday night's televised debate in Orlando.
"The Florida factor is a big part of the Romney strategy to really drive a wedge with Perry on Social Security," Coker said.
Florida Democrats have characterized Perry and Romney as two peas in pod, both determined to gut Social Security -- Romney because he previously supported a plan that would let younger workers put part of their Social Security taxes into private, individual accounts.
Coker said that position probably appeals to a lot of Republican seniors in Florida and shouldn't hurt Romney in the primary election. But he said Perry still has plenty of time to recover on the Social Security before the primary caucuses and elections begin in February to choose a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama.
To do so, he would have to win over voters like Dolores Clark, a 70-ish Florida straw poll delegate who said she was unhappy with the lack of specifics she's heard on Social Security reform so far.
"I think we have to start putting these politicians' feet to the fire," Clark said.
She and Teri Strong, a delegate in her 50s, both said they would support changing the Social Security program for younger workers, possibly through individual accounts or further extensions of the retirement age.
But they were adamant that it should be left untouched for retirees already receiving benefits.
"My parents are on Social Security. There's no way they could survive without it," Strong said.
"They made a promise to people 65 and older," said Clark. "I think you have to keep your promise to those that are already on it." (Editing by Xavier Briand)
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