THE VILLAGES, FL -- With an audience of several hundred seniors hanging on his every word, Mitt Romney today told a town hall meeting here that Social Security was not a Ponzi scheme at all -- but that his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, might make it something worse.
"I don't think the major problem is that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. I think the problem is keeping it from becoming a Perry Scheme," Romney said, debuting a new attack line to an audible reaction from the audience.
But Perry was not Romney's only target in his appearance at this sprawling retirement and golf community today, as the former Massachusetts governor also leveled some harsh words at President Obama.
In beginning an answer in which he went on to broadly criticize the president for his "failing leadership," Romney mocked the president's well-known campaign slogan.
"There's been kind of a change in attitude isn't it?." Romney asked the crowd rhetorically. "We've gone from 'Yes, we can' to 'Gee, I'm sorry, we can't."
That line, along with jokes about his growing brood of grandchildren and about having a drink on a lanai with a voter, earned Romney laughs from a very friendly crowd here -- some of whom had likely seen Romney speak before. Shaking hands and signing autographs after the event, he said he'd spoken around The Villages community more than a half dozen times since 2008. Moreover, the complex's owners, the Morse family, have been generous donors to Romney-supporting Super PAC "Restore our Future" as well.
But not everyone at the event was a supporter -- a group of some 35 demonstrators gathered outside to protest against any plans for cuts to Medicare. Romney addressed the protestors in an answer to a question on health care.
"I saw some signs out there, you may have seen them, that said 'Keep your hands off our Medicare'" Romney said, "By the way, there's only one person I know of that has cut Medicare. That's the president of the United States."
But Romney has praised House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare for future seniors currently younger than 55, in which they must purchase private insurance and receive a subsidy to help pay for it.
"I applaud Rep. Paul Ryan for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate. He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control. Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page," Romney said in a statement last April.
Praising Jeb and Marco
Of course, no Florida campaign event by a GOP presidential candidate would be complete without a dash of praise for former Gov. Jeb Bush, and Sen. Marco Rubio -- and Romney touched both bases.
Asked about education reform, Romney said that while he believed education should be managed at the state level, he said he had also consulted the former Gov. Bush about the issue and considered him an expert.
"I don't know anybody who is a better governor, and an expert on education, than Jeb Bush." Romney said.
And Romney will be able to be lean on some of that expertise as well. This morning, his campaign announced the support of Jeb Bush's Chairman of Florida's state board of education, Phil Handy, who had previously been the Florida chairman of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's campaign.
Asked twice about the possibility of Rubio's name appearing on a Romney presidential ticket, Romney twice demurred, saying he did not want to be presumptuous, but offered kind words for Florida's junior senator, who enjoys rock star popularity among many conservatives.
"You've got a good senator here in this state, no doubt about that." Romney said. "He would certainly be someone that anybody would be proud to be associated with."
And Romney also had kind words for another Republican whose name, we learned today with finality, will not be appearing on any presidential ballots next fall: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"Competition is always a good thing, and he would be a very fine contender and an excellent competitor if he were in the race." Romney said of Christie, responding to a shouted question after the event.
Asked why he himself was running again -- and why anyone would even want the job -- Romney gave the credit, or the blame, to his wife, Ann.
"It was my wife, by the way, she was the one who said, 'You've got to run again.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' You've got to run again! You've got to run again! Because the country needs you." Romney said, again, to laughs.