Rick Perry Softens Social Security Rhetoric Before Florida Debate

WASHINGTON -- If Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) -- who is hard to outflank from the right and is a favorite with Tea Party Republicans -- is getting ready to hit you for your stance on Social Security, that may be an indication you want to alter your approach.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current Republican presidential primary frontrunner, appears to have received the message. His Monday op-ed in USA Today suggests he is backpedaling from earlier comments about Social Security, which he has called a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."

In the op-ed, Perry continued to make the case that Social Security needs to be overhauled.

But there was a difference in his rhetoric. He did not describe the program as a "Ponzi scheme" or "monstrous lie." Instead he wrote of "dire financial challenges facing the nearly 80-year old program" and emphasized the need to protect benefits for current recipients and those "nearing retirement." And there was no mention of allowing states or localities to opt out of the federally run program.

Of course, Perry might come out with guns blazing again on Monday night in Tampa. Even if he continues to soften his rhetoric, it's possible that round house punches followed by a few steps in retreat are part of a shoot first, clean up the mess later approach. No matter how he tackles the issue from here on out, his campaign and his supporters will argue that his provocative tone has started a much-needed conversation about reform.

So far, there are no signs that Perry has suffered great damage over the Social Security issue. A new CNN/ORC poll out Monday showed Perry with the same lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as he had two weeks ago, 30 percent to 18 percent.

More importantly, perhaps, Perry smoked Romney on the question of electability, with 42 percent of voters saying they think the Texan has a best chance of beating President Obama, compared to Romney's 26 percent.

However, that is not the whole story. The Romney campaign is not talking to the average voter about electability. They are talking to political and Republican elites. They are talking to donors. They are talking to Republican governors, who want to have a Republican nominee that maximizes the ability of candidates in their state to win. Right now, those are the people paying the most attention, and thinking the hardest about who to support.

And Romney has been using Perry's comments on Social Security to target voters in Florida, which could end up the most important state in the primary process. Perry and Romney look likely to be neck and neck next winter after the first few primary states. Perry is favored in Iowa and South Carolina, which go first and third (likely the same day as Nevada), and Romney is favored in New Hampshire, which goes second, and Nevada.

Florida goes fifth and will be significant because of the money it will drain from all campaigns, who have to campaign over the airwaves in such a large and populous state. The winner will likely be energized and the loser will be deflated. The Romney campaign sent out a mailer to Floridians late last week cataloguing Perry's comments and calling him "reckless and wrong on Social Security."

The second biggest number in the CNN poll, after the electability figures, was Bachmann's dramatic drop to 4 percent in the survey, down from 10 percent just two weeks ago. Byron York reported Sunday that Bachmann plans to attack Perry on Social Security as a way to make up ground. She was a total afterthought last week at the Reagan Library debate, and she needs to find a way to get back in the conversation.