By PHILIP ELLIOTT
WASHINGTON - A growing divide over Social Security splits the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, and the differences between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney foreshadow a tricky political dance with older voters.
Romney has seized on what he perceives as Perry's vulnerability on a program that seniors hold dear, Democrats venerate as sacrosanct and Perry has labeled a "Ponzi scheme."
That sets up a battle for older voters in Iowa, retirees in Florida and the Sun Belt, and Baby Boomers everywhere worried about their own recession-scarred retirement plans.
Perry has refused to back down from his criticism of Social Security and argues the program is best left to states to administer - a non-starter for many, including some Republicans.
"If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we would be obliterated as a party," Romney said on Sean Hannity's radio program Thursday.
Perry is unyielding.
"It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there," he said during Wednesday's debate in California. "Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."
An aging population has put a heavy burden on the Social Security Trust Fund: too few workers are paying for the benefits of a growing number of retirees. In 1950, there were 16 workers paying into the fund for each recipient. Last year, that ratio fell to three workers for every recipient.
But any talk of cutting benefits comes with political risk.
"Governor Perry's immediate challenge is to knock down the hanging perception being driven that he wants to get rid of Social Security," said Rich Killion, a Republican strategist who worked on Romney's 2008 presidential bid and advised former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's bid this year.
The Romney-Perry spat comes as the contest for the Republican nomination begins to flare. With three formal debates and a handful of forums this month, the campaign to challenge President Barack Obama has taken on urgency as voters return from their summer vacations and start to pay attention to politics.
Since Perry joined the race last month, Romney has seen his lead fade, driving him to focus his aggressive criticism on Perry instead of looking ahead to a general campaign against Obama.
"The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney said, sharing the stage with his rival.
An AP-GfK poll in May found that 70 percent of Americans consider Social Security deeply important to their financial security in retirement. Just 6 percent said it was "not at all" important.
Yet the public is split on the likelihood Social Security will be there for them: 35 percent say it is extremely or very likely to provide income their entire retirement, 30 percent somewhat likely and 35 percent not too or not at all likely.
It's that uncertainty that both campaigns hope to tap.
"I know Florida certainly has an interest in Social Security given the large number of seniors we have here," said John Thrasher, a Republican state senator and former state GOP chairman who backs Romney.
"It's not whether it's a Ponzi scheme or not. These are retired people who are pretty intelligent. They want Social Security to be maintained. And they understand there are problems that need to be fixed. There is an opportunity to fix Social Security so it's a continued benefit for people who are getting it now and those who will get it in the future."
Romney now trails Perry by double digits in the polls and Social Security alone isn't going to help him regain his lead, his advisers acknowledge. But his team plans to make it the opening volley against Perry, Texas' longest serving governor and one who has never lost an election.
"Now, if you say Social Security is a failure, as I have just done, you will inherit the wind of political scorn," Perry acknowledges, while his aides note that Romney hasn't always had kind words for the state of the program.
In his latest book, "No Apologies," Romney wrote: "To put it in a nutshell, the American people have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security."
He suggested increasing the retirement age, adjusting benefits for wealthy Americans or allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts.
And while he derides Perry for likening Social Security to the criminal fraud that put Bernie Madoff behind bars, Romney has compared lawmakers to dishonest trust fund managers.
"What would happen to the bankers responsible for misusing the money? They would go to jail. But what has happened to the people responsible for the looming bankruptcy of Social Security? They keep returning to Congress every two years," Romney wrote.
Those statements offer Perry's team a chance to punch back.
"In his book, Romney compared Social Security to a fraudulent criminal enterprise, but (during the debate) he ran from his position," Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "His evolving and inconsistent position on this important issue is curious, but unfortunately not unusual."