By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney stepped up his criticism of rival Rick Perry over Social Security on Wednesday, the day before a Florida debate where the issue is certain to be prominent.
During an appearance in Miami and in a flurry of campaign statements, Romney challenged Perry to spell out his plans for the future of the U.S. retirement program including how it would work at a state level.
Perry, the Texas governor who has moved past Romney to take the lead in polls in the 2012 Republican nominating race, has harshly criticized Social Security as a Ponzi scheme and a failure and said states should be able to opt out.
Romney questioned the viability of a state-based plan for Social Security, an issue that will be closely watched in Florida where senior citizens are a big and vital segment of the electorate.
"Would people choose states to live in, particularly as they get older, based on who had the best Social Security plan?" Romney asked about Perry's plan during a Miami town hall event. "Would you have people move around trying to find better Social Security or a better deal?"
Romney and some Republican strategists have said Perry's comments about the popular Social Security program would be a liability in a 2012 general election against President Barack Obama.
Romney's fresh attacks hinted at his possible strategy in Thursday's Republican debate in Orlando, Florida. The differences between Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Perry on Social Security have been a prominent theme in the last two debates.
The Romney campaign listed six questions for Perry on how the responsibility for Social Security could be shifted to states, including how it would be administered, whether states would be obligated to offer a program and whether they would be responsible for the program's unfunded liabilities.
"This election is about choices and voters -- and voters will have the opportunity to choose between Mitt Romney, who wants to fix and strengthen Social Security for the next generation, and Rick Perry, who wants to dismantle it," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in a statement.
Perry has responded to the attacks by saying he would preserve benefits for those currently in or almost ready to enter the program, but he wanted to see a national conversation begin about its future.
Perry's campaign has noted Romney's own criticism of the Social Security program in his book, which compared those managing Social Security to criminals.
"Now Mr. Romney is again sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens," Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said.
"Mr. Romney has been running for president full time for nearly five years, and has failed to issue a specific plan on Social Security," he said.
"Rick Perry and other conservatives are courageous enough to be honest about federal spending and entitlements, whether Mr. Romney and the liberals like it or not."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)