If Texas Gov. Rick Perry was looking for a sign that the United States was ready for the “provocative language” about Social Security he offered in Wednesday night’s debate, he quickly found one here.

After praising his “inflammatory rhetoric,” the county supervisor who introduced Perry at a Thursday gathering of Orange County Republicans asked those in attendance what they would call Social Security.

“Ponzi scheme!” the crowd of hundreds cried out in response, echoing Perry’s term for it. “Ponzi scheme!”

Overnight, Social Security has emerged as the first significant disagreement — though so far largely a rhetorical one — between Perry and Mitt Romney, his main rival for the GOP nomination.

With his brash talk, Perry is betting that the nation’s economy is so battered and its debt so deep that voters will reward him for taking on a program that is as financially unsustainable as it is politically sacrosanct. And Perry isn’t just proposing changes to Social Security; he’s labeling it a failure, saying the program is “a monstrous lie to our kids.”

Romney is betting just the opposite. He is arguing that Perry’s views make him unelectable and would badly damage the Republican Party, as happened after President George W. Bush proposed privatizing Social Security in 2005. To woo independentvoters, Romney says, the Republican nominee needs to be committed to saving Social Security, not abolishing it.

Romney’s advisers seized on Perry’s comments to push their argument that the Texas governor’s views on the program make it impossible for him to beat President Obama. The Romney campaign quickly distributed research dossiers to reporters, including one titled “Perry Does Not Believe Social Security Should Exist.”

“I want to save Social Security,” Romney said Thursday on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “It is an essential safety net for the American people. And number two, it is terrible politics. If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party.”

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, and each has revealed a sharply different political calculus in how they talk about the issue.

It is almost certain to come up again Monday night, when Perry, Romney and the other Republican contenders will meet for the first of two debates in Florida, where seniors make up a critical voting bloc.

While Social Security could prove to be a decisive issue between Perry and Romney, it’s not one that is likely to benefit the Republican Party, which wants the 2012 elections to center on Obama and the economy. Republicans suffered after Bush tried to overhaul Social Security, and polling suggests that the House Republicans’ plan this spring to overhaul another entitlement program, Medicare, is unpopular with independent voters.

“It may make some candidates for federal office or state office uneasy,” said former congressman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.). But Reynolds and other strategists said that, in the current political climate, a Social Security position such as Perry’s may not be so damaging — indeed, he has made clear that current seniors would keep their benefits as promised.

“We’re in some new territory here,” said former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.), a moderate. “It’s an awful 30-second sound bite,” he said of Perry’s remarks. But, he added, “I do not think it hurts him in a Republican primary. Most Republicans think this program is out of control at this point, and they want someone to do something about it, not apologize for it.”

The problem for Perry is if voters believe he would rather turn back the clock on Social Security than fix it.

“What Rick Perry implied [in the debate] was that if he could go back 70 years and undo Social Security, he would,” said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney in 2008 but is not currently working for a presidential campaign. “Rick Perry may have reassured the base with some very fiery rhetoric, but what he didn’t do last night was prove in any way that he could win independents or seniors or soccer moms. And, in fact, he shot an arrow into the heart of seniors. He set grandma’s hair on fire.”

Barbara Blackman, a Republican from Seal Beach, said Perry’s tough stance on Social Security didn’t bother her.

“I’m 83 and have been getting Social Security for years and years and years,” she said. “I really think 65 is too young to get Social Security.”

Perry’s rhetoric didn’t bother Doug Misterly, a 45-year-old financial adviser, either.

“It is a Ponzi scheme,” he said. “What was nice to hear is somebody honest about it who says what it is.”

Republican strategists agreed that Perry might avoid being seen as too conservative if he offers a reasonable plan to reform Social Security. So far, he hasn’t.

“He’s only been in the race three weeks,” campaign spokesman Mark Miner said. “He wants to figure out the best way to deal with it so that younger Americans will have a system when they get to be retirement age.”

Romney does not have a plan either. He has been vague about what he would do with Social Security, saying only that he would work to save it. In his book, “No Apology,” Romney lays out three existing proposals — gradually increasing the retirement age, changing the wage index and creating individual retirement accounts — but does not endorse one specifically.

“Politicians have learned from experience that it is unwise to ‘touch the third rail of American politics,’ ” Romney wrote in the book. “But why is that? Why is it that the media doesn’t hold accountable those who duck this critical issue? Why isn’t it instead that failure to address entitlement and Social Security reform is the ‘third rail’?”

Perry’s campaign is accusing Romney of doing just that. Miner said Romney has shown “a complete lack of leadership,” adding, “Politicians out there like Mitt Romney, who’s been running for office for five years, keep sweeping this issue under the table and saying to younger Americans that everything’s going to be okay. That’s disingenuous.”

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