Texas Governor Rick Perry, leading in polls of the Republican presidential candidates, called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” questioned the science behind global warming and sparred with rivals in his debate debut as a White House contender.
Perry also clashed with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney over their job-creation records, Social Security and other topics during exchanges yesterday at the library and burial place of party icon Ronald Reagan.
“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did,” Perry said to Romney, referring to the former Democratic governor of Massachusetts who ran for president in 1988.
Romney, who has sought to present Perry as a career politician, quickly shot back, citing a former Texas governor who went on to be president.
“George W. Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did,” Romney said.
Perry, who after declaring his candidacy less than a month ago replaced Romney as frontrunner in polling of Republican-leaning voters nationwide, frequently found himself parrying criticism and questions about a nearly three-decade political career that includes some contentious pronouncements.
As Perry fielded pointed questions from the journalists moderating the debate and criticism from some of his rivals, he said: “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party.”
Questioned about his past indictments of Social Security, Perry stood by his assertions that the program’s guarantees of government retirement benefits for seniors constitute “a monstrous lie” and “a Ponzi scheme.”
“Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language,” Perry said, adding that his goal was to fix the program for future retirees.
Romney responded that he would never call Social Security a failure.
“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security,” he said. “I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure.”
Romney said the federal retirement program “is working for millions of Americans,” and he would “keep it working for millions of Americans.”
Romney’s campaign intensified criticism of Perry’s Social Security statements today, issuing a news release calling the Texan’s position “reckless” and “wrong.”
“Governor Perry believes Social Security should not exist,” the release said, while Romney thinks it should be “fixed for current and future retirees.”
Perry, reiterating his skepticism that humans have contributed to climate change, said that “the science is not settled on this.” Objecting to Democratic-backed proposals to curb greenhouse gases, he said, “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense.”
The nationally televised debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, was sponsored by NBC News and Politico.
The candidates, eight in total, squared off a day before President Barack Obama is to present his job-revival plan to a joint session of Congress. Obama initially scheduled his speech for the same time as the debate, then changed it after Republicans objected to the timing.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., struggling to gain traction in the race, offered himself as the candidate best suited to assemble a coalition including the independents and Democrats that Republicans would need to win the White House in the 2012 elections.
Asked to name which of his rivals had said “crazy and inane” things -- a description recently made by his top campaign strategist -- Huntsman declined to do so. Still, he suggested that Perry, with his questions about climate change and doubts about the theory of evolution, fit the bill.
“All I am saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science, we can’t run from mainstream conservative philosophy,” he said. “By making comments that basically don’t reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.”
Huntsman criticized Romney on how the U.S. should deal with China. In an economic plan Romney released yesterday, he said that as president he would direct the U.S. Treasury to list China as a currency manipulator and order the Commerce Department to assess duties on Chinese imports if the Asian nation didn’t quickly move to float its currency.
“Now is not the time -- during a recession -- to enter a trade war,” said Huntsman, who served as Obama’s ambassador to China before deciding to run for president earlier this year.
The cast of characters and dynamics of the Republican race have been altered since the last candidate debate on Aug. 11 in Ames, Iowa.
Perry joined the contest two days later and quickly moved to the front in national surveys of Republican-leaning voters. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week, Perry led the field with support from 27 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters, followed by Romney at 22 percent. Prior to Perry’s entry, Romney had led in most polling.
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who had been gaining in the polls, now is seeking to halt what the surveys show has been a loss of support to Perry, particularly among the Tea Party voters who are her strongest constituency.
She won the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, and in the wake of her victory former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty ended his candidacy. Perry officially announced his campaign in South Carolina on the day of the straw poll and has overshadowed Bachmann ever since.
In the debate, she mostly stuck to reiterating her views, offering herself as a candidate with the “core conviction” of shrinking government spending.
She did criticize Perry’s 2007 gubernatorial decision to bypass the Texas legislature and issue an executive order that made the state the first to require pre-teen girls to get vaccinations against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus -- commonly known as HPV -- that causes cervical cancer.
“It is wrong for government -- whether it’s state or federal government -- to impose on parents what they must do to inoculate their children,” Bachmann said. “We have the best results when we have the private sector and when we have the family involved. We have the worst results when the federal government gets involved, and especially by dictating, to impose something like an inoculation on an innocent 12-year-old girl.”
Perry conceded he could have handled the issue better. “Should we have talked to the legislature first before we did it? Probably so,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I will always err on the side of saving lives.”
Romney resisted taking Perry to task on the matter, saying, “We’ve each taken a mulligan or two.”
Representative Ron Paul of Texas promoted his libertarian agenda, saying he would support the elimination of the federal minimum wage. “It would help the poor” by leading to greater job creation, he said. He also said that as president he would cease the practice of issuing executive orders “to write laws.”
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke came under attack at the debate, with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia saying he would “fire him tomorrow” and Romney saying he would “be looking for somebody new” in the post.
“He’s been the most inflationary, dangerous and power-centered chairman of the Fed in the history of the Fed,” Gingrich said. Bernanke has “shifted around money in secret with no responsibility, no accountability,” with “disastrous” consequences, he said.
Romney said Bernanke’s policies have been ineffective.
“Bernanke has over-inflated the amount of currency that he’s created,” Romney said. His policies “did not work. It did not get Americans back to work. It did not get the economy going again.”
Perry caused concern among some Republicans about his readiness for a presidential bid when, during his first week as a candidate, he told a crowd in Iowa that Bernanke would face an “ugly” greeting in Texas if he pushed for additional “monetary stimulus.” Perry said he viewed such a policy as “almost treasonous.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday was the latest leading Republican to criticize Perry for those comments, terming it “inappropriate” in an interview with ABC News. “I’m not sure if he were to get elected he’d want to use that kind of language on the Fed chairman,” Cheney said.
The debate also included former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain.
The Republican race still could be roiled by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who made campaign-like appearances last weekend in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that will start next year’s nomination voting.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, has said she is likely to announce her intentions about a possible White House bid by the end of September.
Obama, 50, may be politically vulnerable in next year’s election amid an unemployment rate that was 9.1 percent last month and approval ratings near lows of his presidency.
Perry, who cut short scheduled campaigning this week to oversee the disaster response to wildfires in Texas, received a phone call yesterday from Obama, who offered federal assistance to the state.