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Mitt Romney on Obama's "stooges," electability, Social Security, Rick Perry, phonies

If Republican Mitt Romney boiled down his strategy to best rival Rick Perry, it would be two words: Social Security.

Romney pointedly called out Perry during a Miami town hall Thursday by describing the Texas governor’s stance on Social Security as unrealistic and flawed. Expect Romney to hammer that home in Thursday's Fox debate in Orlando.

“In his view Social Security itself is a failure,” Romney said. “He said ‘By any measure, Social Security is a failure.’ I disagree. Judging by the tens of millions of people who rely on Social Security is a success. He said secondly that Social Security isn’t something that the federal government ought to be doing. That it’s unconstitutional, that Social Security should be handed back to the states.”

Romney mentioned Perry 15 minutes into the town hall and highlighted six questions and criticisms of Perry’s call to turn some or all of Social Security over to the states. Romney said Perry needs to explain what happens if a state opts out, goes bankrupt, raids entitlement money or decides benefits. He also wondered what would happen to the Social Security Trust Fund and how it would be managed by the states, especially if people move from state to state.

“This thing does not work in anyway shape or form,”  Romney said, pointing out that Perry outlined his plans recently in his book Fed Up.

Romney said he favors an approach of slowly raising the retirement age “by a year or two” for future beneficiaries who are now about 50 years old or younger. He also said there should be fewer and lower cost-of-living increases for wealthy retirees.

By contrast, he said, President Obama has offered no specifics.

Romney spent most of the town hall taking Obama to task, claiming the president looks too much to Europe for inspiration. He also criticized Obama for regulating the banking industry, pushing a global warming “cap-and-trade” system and helping unions by opposing so-called “card-check” legislation concerning how companies get unionized.

Romney also mentioned “ObamaCare” as a failure – even though some of the healthcare act relied on a plan from Massachusetts instituted when Romney was governor. Romney explained that he didn’t beef up Medicaid and tax health plans the way Obama’s healthcare plan did.

“I think the American people recognize we’re in crisis and they want to hear the truth. And they can tell when people are being phony and pandering to an audience,” Romney said. “You’re not going to see that in my campaign.”

Later, when asked whom he was referring to, Romney demurred to name names.

Perry’s supporters are already whispering that Romney’s a shape-shifter, pointing out he changed positions on gay rights and abortion as he entered the 2008 race for president.

Romney also accused Obama of favoring Big Labor over states where jobs are needed.

“When the president pays back unions by putting union stooges on the National Labor Relations Board that tell Boeing they can’t build a factory in a non-union state – that is not the rule of law,” Romney said. “And it is wrong.”

Romney said he opposed the so-called “fair tax,” which would institute a nation-wide sales tax because rich people would pay too little. And he suggested that those who earn less than $200,000 should pay no capital-gains taxes on investment income. He also said the nation needs to secure its borders before rooting out the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

In most national polls, Romney trails Perry by a few percentage points in the Republican race. A new poll reported today by The Miami Herald, though, suggests they’re running neck-and-neck with 25 percentage points each.

But Romney is the only Republican candidate who matches Obama, leading the president 45-44 – a statistical tie -- according to the poll by Gainesville-based War Room Logistics. Romney is the only candidate in the poll to win Florida independents, who often decide elections in the nation’s most-important swing state.

“I want to have the base firmly and solidly behind me,” he told an audience member. “But I also want to get independents. And women, generally, and a lot of Democrats.”

Romney described himself as “a Republican candidate who can win.”

“It’s never easy to beat an incumbent,” he said. “The number one issue is the economy. To beat the president, you’ve got to have credibility on the economy.”

Though he spent most of his time bashing Obama’s policies, Romney did thank the president for one thing.

“President Obama’s doing a great job of rallying our base,” he told his fellow Republicans.