During the debate, Perry repeatedly and emphatically called Social Security as it currently operates "a Ponzi scheme" and the idea that younger people will have benefits to collect a "monstrous lie." When asked about his rhetoric by one of the debate moderators, Perry responded that Americans would respond positively to strong rhetoric about the issue.
Romney's approach was different. He claimed that in order to win, the Republican Party needed a candidate who was focused on saving Social Security, rather than abolishing it. Romney criticized Perry's earlier writings that Social Security is a "failure," reasoning that it couldn't be a failure if millions of Americans relied on the benefits.
It should be noted that Perry never actually said that he wanted to "abolish" Social Security. He was not specific in what he would do, however, and his condemnation of the "Ponzi scheme" created the impression that Perry would do away with the system entirely. After all, no one ever "saves" or "fixes" a Ponzi scheme; such schemes are outlawed. Those who watched the debate, or post-debate coverage, or future attack ads will think Perry wants to go even further than his rhetoric.
As we've discussed over the past few months, Perry's chief liability is his lack of perceived electability. Republicans want someone who is very likely to defeat Barack Obama. Historically, primary voters (including Iowans) favor candidates who seem electable. Perry's main competitor for the moment is Romney, who is perceived as highly electable. It therefore follows that Perry's strategy must be to boost his own perceived electability, or at least not diminish it.
Perry could improve his image simply by appearing presidential and reasonable. He can badly damage his image by losing control and giving into the temptation of extreme rhetoric. Each gaffe Perry makes directly helps Romney.
But were Perry's attacks on Social Security really a gaffe? Yes. While voters have concerns about Social Security, they are not interested in any major overhauls to the system. Instead, they want to be reassured that the system will continue providing the same kind of benefits that it has in the past. They do not want to be threatened with change, since they know it would be for the worse: No one ever talks about saving Social Security by increasing benefits. Older, retired voters are particularly unreceptive to the idea of change. They want something they can rely upon, and they fear the risks inherent to any new system.
Younger voters are unreceptive to attacks on Social Security as well. While they have more doubts about Social Security still operating thirty, forty, or fifty years from now, they are too unengaged to have strong opinions about how the system should be improved. Most young voters are either Democrats, non-voters, or unfamiliar with the workings of Social Security. They give it little thought. Thus, it is very unlikely that Perry will make gains among young voters by suggesting major changes to Social Security. Any gains Perry does make among the young will be overwhelmed by the loss of many more older voters.
Perry was more disciplined during the opening stages of the September 7th debate, but he proved that a few unguarded moments can undo everything for a candidate already struggling with his electability factor.