WASHINGTON — United on the economic issues that most worry voters, the Republican presidential candidates have turned to subjects like vaccines, immigration and the future of Social Security. And while there are some policy differences, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and others are raising those topics partly to make character arguments against GOP front-runner Rick Perry.
Over the past week, Romney has said Perry's rhetoric on Social Security "scared seniors" and is "frightening." Bachmann has argued that the Texas governor's vaccine proposal would have forced "innocent little 12-year-old girls" to have "a government injection." And Perry has defended Texas allowing undocumented immigrants to get in-state college tuition by suggesting that his rivals are un-American.
Such sparring previews a GOP presidential debate Thursday in Florida.
Every election year, voters pine for a contest that allows them to hear a serious discussion about issues and to choose among candidates with sharp policy differences. But they don't usually get it in presidential primaries.
Candidates competing for their party's nomination are often so in sync on major policy issues that they resort to character criticisms to differentiate themselves from their opponents. And even when there are exceptions, the contest still usually becomes a fight over experience, personality, judgment and ultimately character.
Barack Obama's opposition to the Iraq war and Hillary Rodham Clinton's vote to authorize military force in Iraq became a flash point in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. A policy difference, sure. But Obama also used the issue to question Clinton's judgment, arguing that she allowed a misguided military mission championed by Republican President George W. Bush based on faulty intelligence. And Obama cast himself as a leader with a backbone, arguing that he took a risk by opposing the intervention since it was very popular at the time.
Four years later, character attacks are again showing up in a presidential primary as policy differences in disguise.
That's partly because Perry is relying on character as a fundamental argument for his candidacy. He is portraying himself as an authentic straight-shooter who says what he believes regardless of political circumstances. It's an effort to contrast himself with Romney, who has been labeled a flip-flopper for reversing himself on some positions and who has struggled to connect with voters.
As Dave Carney, Perry's top strategist, said in a recent interview: "We are consciously running this campaign to be: We're saying the same things today that we're going to say in October 2012."
There's another reason why Perry's rivals are trying to poke holes in his character: the Republican candidates broadly agree that smaller government, fewer regulations, lower taxes are the solutions to fixing a sluggish economy and an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent. Those are the central issues driving the 2012 election.
"It leaves you to wrangle about smaller stuff, and so that's why you see these fights on the vaccine, immigration, which is not exactly the hottest issue in the country right now, and those debates are about character," said veteran GOP strategist Alex Castellanos.
Sure, Romney and Perry have sparred over just who better managed their state's economy as governor and who created more jobs. Yes, Bachmann supporters have run ads using Perry's record in Texas to accuse him of inflating government spending.
But aside from those arguments, Perry's rivals have turned to more emotionally charged issues as ways try to draw distinctions with the Texas governor.
The latest example came Wednesday in Florida as the Romney and Perry campaigns accused each other of trying to scare Florida seniors who depend on Social Security.
In his book "Fed Up," Perry suggested states should have some say in how it is managed. Romney says he rejects letting states control the program in "any way, shape or form."
Romney's campaign sent out a list of questions about where Perry stood on Social Security and cast Perry as just too risky to support.
"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," said Romney aide Gail Gitcho.
Perry's campaign hit back and raised questions about Romney's truthfulness.
"Now Mr. Romney is again sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "As he has so many times in the past, Mr. Romney seems to forget he's a Republican."
Perry and his rivals also have tussled over immigration. Perry signed a Texas law allowing undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities, while Romney vetoed a similar bill in Massachusetts. Bachmann opposes a federal version of a similar law. Charges of being un-American have flown.
"The bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way," Perry said last week, defending his decision.
"I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally," Bachmann snapped back.
She also is seeking to undercut Perry's claims to be an authentic conservative by assailing his decision to sign an executive order mandating that sixth-grade girls receive an inoculation for human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.
Bachmann disagrees with the policy position included in the executive order. But the inherent message in her criticism is this: Perry says one thing and does another.
The Texas governor has tried to clear up the situation, saying during last week's debate: "It was very clear. It had an opt-out." But then he told reporters in Virginia a few days later that the vaccine "should have had an opt-in instead of an opt-out."
Some Republicans have pointed to those comments as evidence Perry has flip-flopped.
"Talk about a complete reversal on an issue," Iowa social conservative commentator Craig Robinson wrote this month on his website, IowaRepublican.com. "While numerous candidates are raising valid questions about this issue, what the debate over Perry's HPV mandate has really done is brought in to question Perry's character and convictions."