THE VILLAGES — Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney returned to this vote-rich retirement complex Tuesday to reassure seniors that he would "solve and save" Social Security as president and that GOP rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry would threaten its future by letting states run it.
"I don't think the major problem is that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme," Romney said. "I think the problem is keeping it from becoming a Perry scheme."
With its 4 million residents of retirement age, Florida is a state where the future of Social Security is a powerful pocketbook issue. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, hopes to wound Perry among older voters who are often among those most likely to vote.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner fired back in an e-mail to POLITICO, saying Romney "continues to turn to the old Democratic playbook of scare tactics to hide from his liberal flip-flopping past."
At a town hall meeting attended by 300 people, Romney spent most of his speech mocking President Barack Obama — blasting Obama's tax and health care policies, ridiculing his handling of the economy and criticizing his appointees to a federal labor board as "union stooges."
It was clear that despite his front-runner status, Romney has a long way to go to solidify his standing among some Republicans.
Carita Shoemaker, 74, a retired Avon saleswoman from Missouri, said she backed Romney for president in 2008 but has an open mind this time. "I want to hear more about all the ones that are running," she said. "I'm hoping we can come up with a really strong candidate that we can be excited about."
Could that be Romney? "I just want the best man," she said, adding she hasn't heard enough from any of the candidates on how they would create jobs.
Bill Smith, 74, who moved to the Villages from Indiana a week ago, left as a solid Romney supporter. "I was on the line, but I'm 100 percent for him now," the retired lawyer said. "He's very concise, very articulate, and he seems to be in command constantly."
Inside a sparkling hall and surrounded by casually dressed Republicans on all sides, Romney at times resembled a lazy Susan, as he constantly pivoted in a circle so that everyone got to see his face.
Three dozen Democrats protested Romney's visit, dismissing him as a captive of Wall Street. Linda Dickson, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive, held a handmade sign that said: "Keep Social Security trust funds in the USA, not in Romney's offshore hedge fund."
"Why are we talking about sacrificing the middle class and people who need Medicare and Social Security?" Dickson said. "Revenue is the answer, not making people sacrifice even more."
Democratic National chairwoman and Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz hammered on the theme in a conference call with reporters before Romney's visit. She faulted Romney for favoring the privatization of Social Security through investment accounts.
"He can't mask his own record," the Broward County congresswoman said.
Romney is familiar with the Villages — a mainly conservative retirement community in Central Florida that has become a must-visit stop for Republican candidates passing through Florida. His trip Tuesday was his eighth, by his count, between two presidential campaigns and trips stumping for others, like Gov. Rick Scott.
Tuesday, he cheerfully repeated the marketing slogan known by residents: "It's always a beautiful day at the Villages, isn't it?"
Signing campaign posters afterward, Romney said: "Florida is so important to becoming the nominee of our party. You want to do well in the so-called I-4 corridor in Central Florida."
Commenting briefly on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's decision to stay out of the race, Romney said: "Competition is good. He would have been a very fine contender and an excellent competitor if he were in the race."
Romney's campaign also announced Tuesday that Winter Park financier Phil Handy will be co-chairman of Romney's Florida Advisory Committee and co-chairman of his National Education Policy Committee.
Handy is a former member of the state Board of Education who is known as the leader of the "Eight is Enough" term limits movement in Florida in the 1990s. He had been national finance co-chairman for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race in August.
Handy said Romney's experience in the private sector and as governor of Massachusetts makes him the best candidate for president. "As governor, he emphasized innovation and results at the state level and guided Massachusetts to distinction as a national leader in education."
Romney will extend his Florida visit today, with a stop in Tallahassee, where he'll meet business leaders and voters at Seminole Wind Restaurant at midday and later with Scott.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.