FILE - In this April 9, 2010, file photo then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty , left, gives former Massachusetts. Gov. Mitt Romney a pat on the back at a conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota event in Bloomington, Minn. Pawlenty is endorsing Mitt Romney for president. That's the word from Romney's campaign. Pawlenty is a former Minnesota governor who dropped out of the GOP nomination race last month after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig,File)
TAMPA, FLA. - The rising presidential candidacy of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is stirring excitement for many Republican voters but is creating unease in some quarters of the party's establishment, particularly over his views on Social Security, which are at the root of an intensifying competition with Mitt Romney.
Monday's decision by former rival Tim Pawlenty to support Romney's campaign signals the beginning of an effort by some party leaders to try to slow the ascent of Perry -- or to push him to explain positions that are considered provocative.
In announcing his endorsement, which was quickly embraced by Romney, Pawlenty said he believed the former Massachusetts governor was the only candidate with the "unique qualifications to confront and master our severe economic predicament."
The judgment of Pawlenty, who dropped out of the presidential race last month, was carefully watched by some Republicans because he knows both men well.
The endorsement was a visible marker in a quietly continuing battle for the soul and direction of the Republican Party between traditional party leaders and grassroots conservatives. To some degree it is a clash of styles and of principle vs. pragmatism, but it also encompasses foreign and domestic policy differences, some of which have surfaced as the presidential campaign has intensified.
Perry's comments about Social Security -- questioning its financial footing and its constitutionality -- were at the center of a Republican presidential debate Monday night in Tampa. The intense focus on the topic has caused anxiety among some Republicans working to win a Senate majority and keep control of the House next year.
"The people who are on Social Security today, they need to understand something," Perry said at the outset of a contentious exchange at the debate. "Slam-dunk guaranteed. That program is going to be there for them when they arrive there."
Over and over again, Romney aimed questions directly at his rival: "Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program like you did six months ago?"
The balancing act between the Republican establishment and the activists who have gained prominence in the Tea Party movement has been unfolding for nearly two years, testing a party that wants to corral its enthusiasm without alienating moderate voters. But the 2012 campaign is the first presidential race since the Tea Party began influencing the composition of the Republican electorate.
While many party leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach before choosing sides in the presidential primary, Republican advisers to House and Senate campaigns said they were not eager for Social Security to become a central theme in their races next year.
Popularity not universal
One month after declaring his bid for the Republican nomination, Perry has solidified an early edge in polls. But his popularity among activists has not been widely echoed by the party establishment, which is at odds with how races often unfold.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said the party's nominee needed to connect with suburban voters -- moderates and independents -- if he or she wants to defeat President Obama. Roskam said Perry, whose state includes many suburban communities, "knows how to do it," but added that, as a presidential candidate, his comments about Social Security and other issues might not play well.
Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber backed Pawlenty but is now supporting Romney. Weber said there was "deep concern" inside the party about nominating someone like Perry, who has had limited experience appealing to independent and moderate voters, who often decide elections.
"What I think you are seeing is that it's partially establishment versus Tea Party, there's no question about that," said Weber, who is now a Washington lobbyist.
Hours after Pawlenty's announcement, the Perry campaign said Monday it had secured the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who traveled to Florida to attend the Republican debate. Jindal said the economic record that Perry had built in Texas would hold strong appeal for Republican voters: "His record on job creation simply cannot be beat."