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Can Mitt Romney bait Rick Perry on Social Security?

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Mitt Romney won’t let go of Rick Perry and Social Security.

A day before he will attend a Republican debate in Florida, the former Massachusetts governor tried to bait the current Texas governor. Campaigning in the Sunshine State, he laid out a list of questions he hopes that the moderators from Fox News will pose Thursday night. Romney may ask them himself if he gets the chance.

The questions all flow from Perry’s apparent belief that the Social Security system is unconstitutional. Since becoming a candidate for president, Perry has been pressed to say whether he really believes that. Romney is clearly frustrated that Perry hasn’t answered. Perry has resisted for some obvious reasons.

A “yes” would prompt difficult follow-up questions, of the type Romney’s campaign posed in a release Wednesday morning: If it’s unconstitutional, how would you turn the program into something administered by the states? A “no” would leave Perry open to charges that he is a flip-flopper. If Social Security is, as Perry wrote in his book, “Fed Up,” a “crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal . . . all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government,” then radical and risky changes are in order.

The two campaigns see the politics of this debate far differently. Romney’s team is convinced that Perry’s writings on Social Security are a huge vulnerability, based on decades of evidence that any politician who suggests drastic changes in the government’s retirement security program pays a huge price.

Perry’s advisers believe that, if that risk were still true, the Texas governor would be falling like a stone in a state like Florida and perhaps nationally. Given the current state of the Republican Party, heavily influenced by tea party activists eager to see Washington cut down to size and more power given to the states and individuals, Perry’s team believes that the governor’s provocative talk has found a friendly audience.

The first two debates have not produced a definitive answer as to which campaign is correct. Perry’s decision in the first debate not to back away from the thrust of what he had written provided an opening for Romney. Perry’s performance in the second debate showed that he would like to dance a bit longer before getting pinned down on how he would reform or fix the system.

Romney hopes that the third debate will push Perry to explain what those reforms might be. Perry’s advisers sound as if they are in no hurry to do so, and certainly not on a stage in Orlando surrounded by Romney and other rivals for the nomination.

Perry could hold true to the spirit of what his book says and propose a radical change in the Social Security system. But nothing he has said or done in the past 10 days suggests that he is willing to be so bold.

He could continue making robust attacks on Washington and using 10th Amendment rhetoric to hail the power of the states, while quietly acknowledging that after more than 70 years, Social Security is likely to remain a federal program in some form or fashion. He would be free to offer reforms to the system that would shore up long-term financing problems and, as former President George W. Bush proposed, allow individuals the option of setting up private accounts.

That would be a big step back from declaring the program unconstitutional and suggesting, as Perry has done on more than one occasion, that the states might be better positioned to administer retirement security programs. Perry’s challenge will be to appear brash and reassuring at the same time. In his first two debates he has walked that line unevenly.

Romney has problems of his own with issues of domestic policy and the Constitution, given the individual mandate he championed as part of his health care plan in Massachusetts. He now says President Obama’s national health care plan — said to have been modeled in part after Romney’s — is unconstitutional. The difference, as he explains it, is that the mandate is allowed under his state’s constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. That hasn’t fully satisfied many conservatives, who see one mandate like the other.

Romney’s goal in pressing Perry on Social Security appears to be either to suggest that the Texas governor would be unable to carry the Republican banner against Obama in a general election or to raise doubts about the depth of Perry’s beliefs as a way to give pause to Republicans and independents who will be voting in GOP primaries.

Perry’s goal when pushed will be to remind the Republican voters of why they have never fully trusted Romney as a genuine conservative. The ammunition is there, but Perry has been restrained in using it to attack his leading rival.

Romney’s latest effort to press Perry suggests he is worried that the Texas governor is getting away with something. Maybe it’s possible that Republican voters like Perry’s rhetoric but don’t seriously think that he’s really going to end a popular program. Maybe there is enough cynicism or doubt among younger voters that they don’t believe Social Security will be there for them in any case.

At some point, Perry will have to be more definitive about what he thinks should be done about Social Security — but so, too, will Romney. That’s why, substantively and politically, the debate between the two is well worth watching.

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