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Rick Perry's 'Ponzi scheme' problem: new evidence it's real

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential hopeful Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with Harlan Wright before speaking to local Republicans during a Greene County party fundraiser, Thursday, Sept. 15, at the county fairgrounds in Jefferson, Iowa.

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There’s new evidence Friday that Rick Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” remarks about Social Security may cause more trouble for his presidential campaign than he appears to believe, politically speaking.

Yes, there’s some good news for Governor Perry in a just-published Gallup survey. His inflammatory language about the giant government-run retirement system does not bother Republicans overall. Nineteen percent of GOP voters say Perry’s words will make them more likely to vote for him. Nineteen percent say it will make them less likely to pull the Perry trigger. So that’s a wash.

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That would seem to indicate that Perry is right on the traditional track for winning Republican nominees. (Or should that be “on the traditional right track”?) It’s advice Richard Nixon gave lots of Republican candidates in his time: Run as a hard conservative in the primaries, then zig back and run as a centrist in the general election.

Recommended:Perry vs. Romney: Does it matter whom Obama faces in 2012? In short, yes.

And yet ... there’s stuff in this survey that we’d see as clouds on the horizon, if we were Perry’s pollsters.

First of all, the number of Republicans who say they don’t know enough about the whole controversy to have an opinion is pretty high, at 36 percent of respondents. That’s a plurality on this question. So there is plenty of room for Perry’s primary opponents to drive down his numbers if they can frame him as extreme on Social Security. Mitt Romney’s probably got an entire team of turnaround artists working on that right now.

Second, independents don’t like the “Ponzi” stuff. Thirty-two percent of self-identified independents said Perry’s language would make them less likely to support him, as opposed to 12 percent who said it would increase their chances of voting for him. That would hurt Perry in a general election.

And if it might hurt him in the general, it might back-flip and hurt him the primary as well. A small plurality of 37 percent of Republican voters in the Gallup poll said that whatever their personal response to Perry’s phrases, they thought the whole thing would make it less likely he could defeat President Obama in November.

Many Republicans are eager to put up a strong candidate in the fall. If they think Mr. Romney is stronger than Perry, will they defect to the ex-Massachusetts governor, even if they’d really rather vote for the Texan?

Gallup analyst Lydia Saad concludes that Perry’s description of Social Security as a “monstrous lie,” and so forth, could indeed gain him conservative support through the early primary season.

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“But as the Republican presidential field is winnowed during the primaries – and particularly if it is reduced to just Perry and Romney – this controversy could complicate Perry’s chance of winning the nomination and, ultimately, the general election,” Ms. Saad writes.

Perhaps this is one reason Perry has already begun to tone himself down on this subject, When it comes up – as it did in Monday’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate, he says he is not backing down from what he said, but the point is to get people’s attention and push for ways to reform Social Security so it will endure long enough to help today’s youngsters.