ORLANDO —Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney tangled over Social Security, health care and other issues here Thursday in a debate in which the Republican presidential candidates sharply criticized the policies of President Obama and joined in an assault on the federal government.
Romney pressed Perry to explain whether he would dismantle Social Security as a federal program and turn it over to the states, as he has suggested. Perry countered that he would preserve the program for those on it or near retirement and fix it for younger workers. He said he would support a limited role for states to manage retirement security for state employees.
Republican presidential candidates were asked which of the other hopefuls would be their running mate. (Sept. 22)
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Romney then charged that Perry was running away from what he wrote in his recent book and has said several times in the past months. “There’s a Rick Perry out there that is saying . . . that it’s unconstitutional . . . and it should be returned to the states,” Romney said. “So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
The attacks by Romney underscored the intense competition between him and Perry as the leaders in the GOP race. But the other candidates joined in the attacks, signaling their desire to blunt the Texas governor’s early momentum and followed a pattern from two debates earlier this month.
Time and again, Perry found himself on the defensive throughout the nearly two-hour exchange. As in last week’s forum in Tampa, he was criticized for advocating the mandatory vaccination of young girls against a sexually transmitted virus — a position he has said was a mistake but one made with good intentions.
If Perry appeared to give some ground on Social Security, he held firm on his immigration positions. He said he opposes trying to build a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexican border and defended his support for giving children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition.
Romney said that policy amounted to a nearly $100,000 discount over four years for those students and said it made “no sense.” Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) blasted Perry on border protection and the tuition program. Calling him “soft” on immigration, Santorum said: “I think he’s very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration.”
Perry said the tuition policy had won the Texas legislature’s backing with only four dissenting votes. “I greatly support it,” he said. He added, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”
Thursday’s debate was a freewheeling event in which virtually all the candidates played more visible roles than in the previous two debates, which often became a face-off between Romney and Perry. The forum did not settle some outstanding questions about the two front-runners and may have only a limited effect on the overall shape of the contest. The other candidates demonstrated their determination not to be pushed aside.