Despite GOP emphasis on Social Security, Ariz. voters seen unconcerned

September 16, 2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry says America is ready for some blunt talk on Social Security. Mitt Romney, Perry’s top rival for the Republican presidential nomination, says talk is good, just not so blunt. But the seniors both are trying to reach don’t seem particularly interested — or worried — about what either has to say.

In Sun Lakes, a sprawling retirement community near Phoenix where Romney addressed an older crowd of more than 600 last week, residents care about Social Security and depend on it. But none of more than a dozen interviewed thought they were at any risk of losing their benefits, or were particularly focused on a debate that has dominated the presidential race for the past two weeks.

“None of them are going to take a chance on offending this age group,” said Bob Landino, 78, who lives in Sun Lakes and is retired from the restaurant industry. “They’re going to change it for 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds, but not if you’re already at the age of retirement. That ain’t gonna happen.”

In many ways, it doesn’t matter to the candidates whether people are attuned to what they are actually saying about Social Security. For them, the issue is instead serving as a proxy for the narrative each is trying to establish about himself.

For Perry, standing by his brash statements on Social Security — he has called it a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie” — presents a chance to show that he’s a straight-shooter unafraid to confront the nation’s toughest challenges.

“I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken,” Perry said in an interview published in Time magazine last week. “If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken — they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation.”

For Romney, it’s a moment to portray Perry as too radical for America — and himself as a more rational, problem-solving leader. The issue has also given Romney an opening to assert himself in a way he hadn’t done previously. For months before Perry got in, Romney hung back, ignored his rivals’ barbs and kept a minimal public schedule in which he did little other than tout his business experience and criticize President Obama’s handling of the economy.

Confronted with his most formidable challenger yet to the “electable” and “experienced” mantles Romney hopes to assume, he has adopted a new and aggressive tone.

“Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme,” Romney said Wednesday in a packed clubhouse ballroom in Sun Lakes. “Social Security has worked pretty darn well for 75 years. You guys haven’t taken advantage of Social Security; you’ve contributed to it, in a pretty big way. Is it financially out of control? Absolutely. Are we going to have to change it down the road? Yeah.”

Perry and Romney both say they would continue existing benefits for seniors but acknowledge that Social Security is unsustainable and say it needs to be reformed for future generations. But neither has detailed how he would achieve that.

Sun Lakes is an economically diverse planned community dating to the 1970s where more than 90 percent of residents are 55 and older. In a state that has become the main stage for the national conversation over illegal immigration, residents said that issue and the overall state of the economy are of far greater urgency than Social Security as they decide whom to support for president.

All are worried about the future of the program — for their children, if not for themselves — but they don’t view it as the looming crisis that Perry and Romney make it out to be.

“Whoever gets in there is going to have to fix it,” said Patty Partridge, a retired nurse who voted for Obama in 2008 but said she almost certainly will vote for a Republican next year. “It’s got to be done, but it’s got to be done correctly.”

Like others interviewed who emphasized the importance of Social Security, Partridge objected to Perry’s view, expressed in his book “Fed Up!” that Social Security is unconstitutional or best handled by the states.

Yet Partridge also made clear that she’s not worried about her own benefits. “It will be there for me,” she said resolutely. “But I have four children and 14 grandchildren. It needs to change, or it won’t be there for them.”

Such pronouncements reflect polling data on the issue, which show that while a majority of Americans view Social Security as a problem that needs fixing, the vast majority don’t think the current system needs to be replaced. A CNN poll conducted this month found that 72 percent of registered voters disagreed with the characterization of Social Security as a “failure” or a “monstrous lie.”

Furthermore, according to the CNN poll, those ages 35 to 49 are more apt than those 65 and older to view Social Security’s problems as “serious” and in need of deep change.

What the crowd in Sun Lakes is looking for is a candidate who will bring a steady hand to Social Security — and all the other matters facing the nation.

“The thing that I want to see is the person who is going to do the best thing for our country,” said Landino, whose biggest issues are stemming the tide of illegal immigration and fixing the economy. “I heard that from him today.”

In other words, Sun Lakes may have been exactly the right setting after all for Romney to make his case.

Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

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