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Romney, Perry feud dominates debate

Republican presidential candidates (from left) Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Representative Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Representative Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum at the start of last night’s debate. Republican presidential candidates (from left) Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Representative Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Representative Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum at the start of last night’s debate. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 13, 2011

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TAMPA, Fla. - Eight Republican presidential candidates continued a vigorous exchange last night over the future of Social Security, but much of the focus of the two-hour debate was on Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who are quickly developing a feisty feud that at times seems personal.

The former Massachusetts governor, who has been overtaken by the Texas governor as the front-runner in the race, several times criticized Perry for referring to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.’’

“The term Ponzi scheme, I think, is over the top, unnecessary, and frightful to many people,’’ Romney said. He then added, “The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program, as you did six months ago when your book came out?’’

Perry shot back, “Rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing and other people, it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program. You called it a criminal program. That’s in your book.’’

The tit-for-tat between Romney and Perry during the second major debate in as many weeks highlighted just how central an issue Social Security has become, after a campaign that so far has largely been guided by health care, the economy, and cutting the deficit.

It also spurred others to plead for calm.

“To hear these two go at it over here, it’s almost incredible,’’ former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah said at one point. “All I know is that we’re frightening the American people who just want solutions. And this party isn’t going to win in 2012 unless we get our act together and fix the problem.’’

Other candidates seemed to agree that major changes are needed to shore up Social Security - for younger voters, not for current recipients - but few have been willing to get into specifics.

“Social Security is broke, and it’s on its last leg if we don’t do something,’’ said Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

“I don’t care what you call it, it’s broken,’’ said businessman Herman Cain.

Romney last night also sought to pour cold water on any notion that Perry deserves credit for his job-creation record while governor of Texas.

The Lone Star State has created about four out of 10 of the country’s jobs over the past two years, but Romney said much of that should be attributed to the economic climate in Texas, an oil production state with no income taxes and Republican-led government, rather than anything Perry has done.

“Oh sure,’’ Romney said initially, patting him on the back when asked if Perry deserved credit for the job gains in Texas. Then, he added, “I think Governor Perry would agree with me: If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player.’’

Perry didn’t agree with him. “I was going to say to Mitt, you were doing pretty good until you started talking poker,’’ Perry said. “The state of Texas has led the nation.’’

In an indication of his newfound status as the front-runner, Perry repeatedly had to fend off attacks. At one point, several of his rivals pointedly disagreed with his decision as governor to sign an executive order mandating that all teenage girls in Texas receive the human papillomavirus vaccine to guard against the sexually transmitted infection.

The Texas Legislature later overruled that decision, and Perry has said that he was wrong to have pursued the policy.

Representative Michele Bachmann, in one of her most animated moments of the night, criticized Perry for signing the order and suggested it was done to benefit Merck, the drug company that manufactured the vaccine.

“This is just flat out wrong,’’ Bachmann said. “The question is was it about life or millions, if not billions, for a drug company?’’

Perry said the company gave him only $5,000 in contributions. “I raise $30 million,’’ he said. “If you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.’’

“I’m offended for all the little girls that didn’t have a choice,’’ Bachmann countered.

In an indication of the shifting contours of the race, Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts - once seen as the chief impediment to his campaign - didn’t come up until well over an hour into the debate.

Romney defended the decision to pass the law, which he called “MassachusettsCare,’’ but said he would repeal the federal law that was passed by President Obama.

“Frankly I don’t think it was right for Massachusetts when you look what it’s costing the people of Massachusetts,’’ Perry said. “But that’s their call.’’

The two-hour debate, sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, was highly produced, with an introduction with thumping music and dramatic graphics that made Monday Night Football look modest. It was the first time that the Tea Party movement, which asked numerous questions, played such a prominent role in a national debate.

Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican and a Tea Party hero, enjoyed support from the crowd and was more active than she was a week ago, when it took 14 minutes before she uttered a word. Any momentum her campaign gained after winning the Iowa Straw Poll last month has quickly been overtaken by Perry’s candidacy.

Paul, a Texas Republican with a small but committed following, is often outspoken and continues to prove that he’s not afraid to be a thorn in the side of his challengers. A group of Paul supporters yesterday put out an ad that refers to the choice of Romney or Perry as between “this pretty boy, or that pretty boy.’’

The debate also featured former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

In a bit of a campaign twist, the first candidate to drop out of the race, former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, was at the debate as a guest of Romney’s.

Pawlenty yesterday morning announced he was endorsing Romney. Several hours later, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana endorsed Perry, and then accompanied him to the debate.

The debate also marked an opportunity for Romney to continue attempting to reach out to Tea Party movement supporters, many of whom have been skeptical of him because of his health care law, and his past willingness to shift positions.

A CNN poll released yesterday, like others taken in recent weeks, show Perry with a comfortable lead over Romney nationally, 32 percent to 21 percent.

The poll’s underlying findings also spelled trouble for Romney. Despite Perry’s charge that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,’’ Perry led Romney 41 percent to 22 percent among Republicans ages 50 and older.

Forty-two percent of voters also thought Perry had the best chance at beating President Obama, compared to 26 percent for Romney, cutting at the Romney campaign’s argument and the findings of other polls that Romney was more electable.

The poll was conducted from Sept. 9-11 and has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.