MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with what has often been called the third rail of American politics, Social Security. If it is the third rail, many of those now running for office are living dangerously. What's wrong with Social Security and ideas for how to fix it have become a key part of the current presidential primary debate. Most candidates say they have plans to reform it, but Texas Governor Rick Perry has called the program a Ponzi scheme and a monstrous lie.
NPR's Greg Allen reports that Perry may be running into resistance from Republican voters, but not because of his stand on Social Security.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In recent debates, moderators have asked Perry to defend his tough views on Social Security. In his book "Fed Up!," Perry calls the program used by nearly 55 million Americans a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal, something Americans have been forced to accept, quote, "at the expense of respect for the Constitution."
At last week's debate in Orlando, Perry tried to distance himself from some of those comments. His leading rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, called him on it.
GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying that - almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional – unconstitutional - and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.
ALLEN: Perry says he never intended to suggest the federal Social Security program should be scrapped and given over to the states. But he hastened in that debate, and in other speeches, to reassure voters.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: For those people that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about. We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that that Social Security program in place today will be there for them.
ALLEN: Some Republicans have begun to question Perry's conservative credentials. But Republican activists I spoke to say they weren't bothered by his harsh characterization of Social Security. Diane Warren, a retiree from Apopka, Florida, said, what's wrong with calling it a Ponzi scheme?
DIANE WARREN: Well, it is. I mean, isn't a Ponzi scheme where you put in money now, and then you will get paid back later on somebody else's money?
ALLEN: Warren was one of 3,500 Republican activists at a state party event last week for a presidential debate and straw poll. She said with this group, tough talk on Social Security is no longer off limits.
WARREN: The seniors in our day and age are not the seniors from the '70s, '80s, '90s. We're more aware, we're involved. And the Tea Party was a big part of that.
ALLEN: Warren's comments don't come as a surprise to Peter Brown. Brown helps direct the Quinnipiac University poll, which recently surveyed Floridians to get reaction to Perry's comments.
PETER BROWN: And a majority of voters overall say it's not fair, that the idea of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme does not jibe with their view. But a majority of Republicans say it does.
ALLEN: Among a cross-section of Florida voters - Republicans, Democrats and independents - Brown says about as many people think Perry wants to end Social Security as fix it.
BROWN: But Florida Republicans are very much in one camp. By 4 to 1, they think he wants to fix it, not end it. And obviously, that's helpful data when he's running for the Republican presidential nomination.
ALLEN: One of the state's leading Republicans, House Speaker Dean Cannon, is helping run Rick Perry's campaign in Florida.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE DEAN CANNON: I don't think it is a third rail anymore.
ALLEN: Cannon points to Republican Marco Rubio's Senate win last year over independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Crist ran ads attacking Rubio for wanting to raise the Social Security retirement age and consider cutting benefits. Rubio won easily. In that context, Cannon says calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme hardly registers with Florida voters.
CANNON: The benefits that are there for the people who are about to retire or even close to it are absolutely an inviolate trust of the American people. But we've got to be honest about changing it.
ALLEN: That may be the case in the primary, but many Republicans are still nervous about how Social Security will play in the general election. One in five Floridians receives Social Security, and the issue may help determine how the eventual Republican nominee does here. Bill Donegan, a Republican official from the Orlando area, says that in Florida politics, the history is clear.
BILL DONEGAN: Any time you deal with Social Security or you deal with Medicare or Medicaid, you better be real sure how you word it.
ALLEN: That's because positions and issues that work for you in the primary can be used against you in the general election. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.