Perry may be right that we need some provocative language on Social Security. And his debate answer last night had conservatives cheering, though a bit nervously. There’s obviously concern the position could hurt him if he makes it to the general election and before that, in the Florida primary.

Polls are conflicted about whether Americans are open to Social Security reform, with senior citizens usually strongly opposed to the idea. But that doesn’t mean the issue is always a loser in Florida. Mike Allen points out an article in the St. Petersburg Times that noted Republican primary voters supported Marco Rubio despite his support for Social Security reform:

Then again, maybe voters don’t care as much as the polls say they do. U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio in his GOP primary battle with Charlie Crist said during a nationally televised debate that he was open to changes to Social Security. Crist ran ads against him. But Rubio won easily.

Of course, saying you’re open to changes in SS isn’t as drastic as calling it a “Ponzi scheme.” Perry’s challenge now is to flesh out his ideas for the general public. Most haven’t read his book, and may be confused about whether he “doesn’t believe Social Security should exist” (as Romney’s team is already saying) or if he wants to institute reforms.

Perry also needs to present his plan in a way that’s empathetic to those who rely on Social Security. At the National Review, Maggie Gallagher notes that his arguments weren’t as reassuring to seniors as they could have been:

It is early. He has time to recover. But pay attention to how little time or energy Gov. Perry spent assuring seniors they would have the money they earned and were promised — and how much time and energy he put into defending, not backing down from the phrase “Ponzi scheme.”

She’s right. Perry had a good moment when he spoke about the 25 and 30-year-olds who are paying into a system that may not exist when they retire. But he wasn’t able to explain how his position on Social Security would benefit retired people and those who already rely on it.

Romney will spend tons of money going after Perry on this issue. The strategy is to make Perry appear unelectable against President Obama. And if Romney is able to define the Texas governor’s stance on Social Security as “toxic,” he could succeed. Perry has the attention and the momentum right now, but he needs to make the case to the public his position on Social Security is reasonable and compassionate.

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