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Will voters be frightened by Rick Perry?

What’s emerging from the Republican presidential debates is a portrait of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — painted by his opponents — as one scary guy, a threat both to young and old.

A Republican debate that was expected to be a showdown between the two heavyweights, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, turned into something resembling a football pile-on with five of the GOP contenders swarming over the Texas governor.

What’s emerging from the GOP presidential debates is a portrait of Perry — painted by his opponents — as one scary guy, a threat both to young and old.

If you believe the image being created by the frontrunner's rivals, Perry's a threat both to the frail elderly, by scaring them over the future of Social Security benefits, and to innocent young girls, at least in Texas, by allegedly “forcing” them to have vaccinations to prevent cervical cancer.

As Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., put it during Monday's Republican debate “to have innocent little 12-year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum added that Perry’s vaccination program was “big government run amok.”

Perry admitted to CNN host and debate moderator Wolf Blitzer that he had made a mistake as governor by issuing an executive order requiring teenage girls to receive the injection designed to prevent cervical cancer.

Perry said he ought to have worked with his state legislature on the program.

Perry explained — as he did in last week’s NBC News/POLITICO debate — that Texas parents had been given the right to opt out of having their daughters vaccinated against the human papillomavirus. And he explained he had been trying to save lives: “Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die.”

Bachmann upped the ante by charging that he had issued the order because a former Perry aide worked for Gardasil’s manufacturer, Merck & Co., which had contributed money to Perry’s gubernatorial campaign.

Perry contended that the contribution was $5,000 out of a total campaign war chest of $30 million. He said he was offended by Bachmann’s insinuation he could be bought for a mere $5,000. She fired back that she was offended “for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice.”

Bachmann simply ignored Perry’s explanation that parents had been given the right to opt out of the program.

Earlier in the debate, the part of the population apparently at risk from Perry — again according to his opponents — had been the elderly.

Romney charged that Perry’s rhetoric about Social Security (“monstrous lie” and “Ponzi scheme”) was “frightful to many people” and that Perry had argued in his book "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington," that Social Security ought to be turned over to the state governments.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman chimed in a few minutes later “we’re frightening the American people who just want solutions” and argued the Republicans would lose the 2012 elections unless they explained how to fix Social Security and Medicare.

Earlier Monday, Huntsman told CBS News that the 2012 election "could be 1964 all over again." That was the year when Republican nominee Barry Goldwater’s Perry-like rhetoric about Social Security contributed to his landslide defeat in the general election.

Like Perry, Goldwater was a tough-talking Westerner who challenged an East Coast, big business, establishment candidate (Romney plays that role this year, Nelson Rockefeller played it in 1964) and won the GOP nomination.

Romney asked in Monday’s night’s debate, “Does Gov. Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional, and that it should be returned to the states? Or is he going to retreat from that view?”

Perry seemed to be stalling for time when he said “I think we ought to have a conversation” — to which Romney impatiently fired back, “We’re having that right now, governor.”

Perry accused Romney of “trying to scare seniors” and insisted that for current retirees and for those near retirement “that program is going to be there for them.”

But Perry then argued that “we have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face,” tell them that Social Security’s funding is insufficient to pay benefits for people now in their 30s, and explain how “we’re going to reform it, we’re going to transform it ... we’re going to fix it.”

Yet Perry in the next several minutes of discussion in Monday’s debate never did explain how he would “reform,” “transform,” or “fix” Social Security.

And he came up empty on his reasons for not wanting to get rid of the prescription drug entitlement in the Medicare program.

So for some debate viewers the Texas governor may have come across as someone who didn’t have a willingness to explain his beliefs, or was not yet ready to show his cards.

A choice Perry confronts is whether he wants to move from being “Ponzi scheme” provocative to being the sober, serious statesman offering solutions.

In a populist environment it may well be that continuing to be provocative is the surest road to energizing Republican primary voters.

No-win dilemma?
But until he offers a proposal to fix Social Security, Perry leaves himself open to more attacks from his rivals for the Republican nomination, assaulting his “monstrous lie” rhetoric.

Of course, it’s a no-win dilemma because when he does offer his Social Security proposal, they will attack him too.

And it is worth noting that in Wisconsin, a swing state which President Barack Obama carried in 2008, Republican Ron Johnson won a Senate seat last year, defeating incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold, despite also calling Social Security “a Ponzi scheme.”

Romney is assuming or hoping that people will be frightened by the suggestion that they ought to be frightened by Perry's harsh words on Social Security.

While opinion polls show people opposed to cutting Social Security benefits for current retirees, a Gallup poll in May showed two-thirds of people thought Social Security and Medicare were already in crisis or would be in crisis within 10 years. So if people were “frightened,” it was before Perry showed up as a presidential contender.

Perhaps more damaging or at least more noteworthy is Perry evading or stalling on what he’d do to fix Social Security.

Huntsman may be exaggerating in making his 2012/1964 comparison.

Next year probably won’t be another 1964 Democratic landslide, but with Obama looking quite beatable right now, 2012 could turn out to be more heartbreaking for GOP: a close election in which Republicans lose due to the defection of older voters alarmed by candidates (Romney and sooner or later Obama) telling them they ought to be alarmed.