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Campaign 2012

In Bay State, Perry takes aim at Romney

Texas governor keeps focus on Social Security

Texas Governor Rick Perry has poked fun at Massachusetts, but said “I only have the deepest respect for this state’’ last night at a Pioneer Institute dinner in Boston. Texas Governor Rick Perry has poked fun at Massachusetts, but said “I only have the deepest respect for this state’’ last night at a Pioneer Institute dinner in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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Governor Rick Perry of Texas implicitly attacked Mitt Romney last night on his home turf over the issue of Social Security, which has become a flashpoint between the two major rivals for the Republican nomination for president.

Speaking before a Boston audience that included many diehard Romney supporters, Perry hit back at the former Massachusetts governor, who has continued to criticize him for labeling the retirement program a “Ponzi scheme.’’

“When it comes to Social Security, every Republican candidate knows the current system is unsustainable, with an unfunded liability in the trillions of dollars,’’ said Perry, who did not mention Romney by name in the speech. “Other candidates in this race have used words like ‘fraud’ and compared it to a ‘criminal enterprise.’ But under the media spotlight, they change their tune and they start sounding like liberals.’’

Perry was fresh off a bruising debate in Florida Monday in which Romney again challenged him for referring to the retirement program as a failure. Perry struck back by contending Romney’s book had said the program would be considered criminal if it were in the private sector; Romney argued that the criminal reference was instead criticism of Congress for spending the Social Security surplus elsewhere.

Perry spoke last night at a dinner sponsored by the conservative Pioneer Institute at the Hyatt Regency. His 20-minute speech, which also touched on his job-creation record, received polite, but not enthusiastic, applause from the crowd of Republican lawyers, activists, and business executives.

The tough-talking Texan, who has gleefully skewered the Bay State as a bastion of gay marriage, mandated health care, and liberal politics, also used his appearance to pay tribute to Massachusetts as the birthplace of the original Tea Party.

“I not only have great respect for this state, I have a deep appreciation for your history,’’ Perry said. “This is truly the cradle of liberty.’’

The governor, who is courting Tea Party support in his run for the Republican nomination, said of the first Tea Party participants: “They shook their fist at that distant crown, and they shook their fist in the name of freedom.’’

Even among Massachusetts Republicans, Perry is something of an anomaly: his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants puts him to the left of most of the state’s Republicans, including Romney, who vetoed an in-state tuition bill in 2004.

Meanwhile, Perry’s strong opposition to abortion rights and gay rights, and his open embrace of Christianity, put him to the right of the state GOP, which has traditionally nominated moderates, such as former governor William F. Weld, who espouse a mix of fiscal conservativism and liberal social views.

“He’s certainly much more conservative than the Republicans who win office here,’’ said Peter Torkildsen, a former Republican congressman from Massachusetts and a former chairman of the state GOP, who is backing Romney.

Weld, who is also supporting Romney, spoke before Perry but did not mention him or presidential politics. Instead, he lauded the Pioneer Institute for helping his administration develop cost-saving ideas.

In an interview after the dinner, Weld, who endorsed President Obama over John McCain in the 2008 general election, said he was impressed with Perry and would vote for him if he were the nominee.

“The major area where Governor Perry and I depart is he’s a rock-ribbed social conservative, and I’m far from that,’’ Weld said. “But that’s no secret.’’

Asked about Perry’s appeal to Massachusetts Republicans, Weld acknowledged the gun-toting Texan faces certain hurdles.

“Obviously, it would be harder sledding for a governor of Texas - any governor of Texas - in the deep Northeast. And harder sledding, or no sledding at all, for a governor of Massachusetts in the Deep South,’’ Weld said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t have their supporters in those areas.’’

Touting his home-state support hours before Perry’s speech, Romney yesterday released the names of the 33 of the 36 Republicans in the Massachusetts Legislature who have endorsed his candidacy. Several of those lawmakers were in the ballroom last night, dining on beef with smoked tomatoes, corn risotto, and flourless chocolate cake.

In addition to discussing politics and policy last night, the guests were buzzing about Perry’s history of poking fun at Massachusetts.

This summer, Perry dismissed Obama’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard by declaring, “I’m not even sure where it is.’’ And he happily lampooned the state in his book, “Fed Up!’’

“I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas,’’ Perry wrote. “We just don’t agree on a number of things. They passed state-run health care, they have sanctioned gay marriage, and they elected Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barney Frank repeatedly - even after actually knowing about them and what they believe!’’

Last night, however, Perry was nothing but gracious toward the state and its politicians. He called Weld “a fine governor.’’

Perry also warmly praised state Representative William Brownsberger, a Democrat from Belmont, who won a Better Government Award from Pioneer for his proposal to overhaul the state pension system.

“The fact of the matter is no political party, Will, has a monopoly on good ideas,’’ Perry told Brownsberger. He urged him: “Go to Congress. They need some help,’’ and poking fun at his own controversial remarks, said, “They might need some ideas about Social Security.’’

Perry, who has replaced Romney at the front of the Republican nomination contest in recent polls, was invited to speak at the dinner back in March, well before he launched his presidential campaign. The Pioneer Institute has worked with Perry’s administration to toughen Texas’s education standards.

Perry struck some familiar notes in his speech, mentioning his support for low taxes and medical malpractice reform. Texas, he said, has created 1 million jobs while the Obama administration has lost 2 million.

“My home state not only created 40 percent of all the jobs in this country since June of 2009, but our credit rating went up as well,’’ he said. “My conservative policies . . . have helped create America’s strongest economy, even in the depths of the recession.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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