ORLANDO, Sept 23 – Republican White House hopefuls fought it out in a debate, with each trying to outdo the other on proposals to cut taxes and revamp the pensions system as Americans reel from a brutal recession.
While nine candidates took to the debate stage in Orlando, the rivalry was especially tense between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Republican frontrunner who holds a fragile lead over his nearest rival.
“The people hurt most by the president’s economy, the Obama economy, have been the middle class. That’s why I (would) cut taxes for the middle class,” said Romney, vowing to cut out any taxes on savings for people making less than $200,000 a year.
The moderate Republican, who was criticized at an earlier townhall event for saying he’s part of the middle class despite his vast wealth, was targeted by Perry’s campaign, who called him “Middle Class Mitt.”
Asked “who is rich,” Romney declined to answer, saying instead: “I want everybody in America to be rich. I want people in this country to have opportunities.”
Tea Party conservative favorite Representative Michele Bachmann said President Barack Obama, a Democrat, thinks “our money is his.”
“You earned every dollar. You should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That’s your money. That’s not the government’s money,” she added.
The two-hour debate, sponsored by Fox News and Google, took place in the “Sunshine State,” which could hold much sway over the November 2012 elections. A straw poll will be held there Saturday that could decide the party’s nominee.
Perry and Romney also sparred on Social Security, with the Texas governor, who has denounced the federal program as a fraudulent “Ponzi scheme,” calling for reform while saying beneficiaries should expect to keep it.
Romney pointed to the discrepancies between that statement and Perry’s past criticism in an attempt to heighten scrutiny given stiff resistance among Florida’s vast elderly population to tinkering with the popular retirement program.
“There’s a Rick Perry out there that’s saying that… the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional and to be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,” said Romney.
A poll released earlier found Perry with a 28-22 percent lead over Romney among Florida Republicans, and if it were just a two-person face-off, Perry leads Romney 46-38.
But the poll, by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, shows Romney topping Obama 47-40 percent in a possible 2012 matchup, while Obama tops Perry 44-42, a statistical dead heat.
Former senator Rick Santorum hammered Perry for being “soft” on immigration, saying the Texas system of giving in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants should make them pay their share.
Romney said the program was equivalent to giving a $100,000 credit to those children and other candidates questioned also agreed that no education benefits should be given to children of illegal immigrants.
But Perry said he was the Republican candidate with the most experience on border issues, with Texas sharing the biggest border of any US state with Mexico.
“If you don’t think we should educate children who have been brought into our state by no fault of their own… I don’t think you have a heart,” he said.
Representative Ron Paul, former China envoy Jon Huntsman, business executive Herman Cain, former House Speaker New Gingrich and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson also courted voters at the debate.
As with the rest of the electorate, Floridians are worried about the economy: the state suffers from 10.7 percent unemployment, higher than the national average, and has struggled with a wave of home foreclosures.
Florida is also the home state of one of the most talked-about potential Republican vice presidential contenders, US Senator Marco Rubio, a foreign policy hawk who has sharply criticized Obama since coming to Washington in January.
Even if the first-term senator opts out of seeking higher office this time, his endorsement could carry weight in Florida and among Hispanics, one of the fastest-growing voting blocs in the United States.