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Factbox: Social Security positions of Republican candidates

(Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was strongly criticized recently for calling the Social Security pension program for retirees a "Ponzi scheme."

Here is what the Republican presidential candidates have said about the retirement program:

All the candidates support keeping the program for retirees already receiving checks, or those close to retirement.

RICK PERRY - The Texas governor called the pension program a "Ponzi scheme" and has said states should be able to design their own programs, particularly for state employees. Perry has said he wants to protect Social Security benefits for retirees and those nearing retirement. But he would like to start talking about how to make the system financially sustainable without forcing younger workers to pay into a system that would not be there for them later.

MITT ROMNEY - The former governor of Massachusetts has said Social Security for the elderly and poor is an "essential" program and would have to be part of a long-term solution to the budget deficit. He has previously supported a plan that would let younger workers put some of their Social Security taxes into private, individual accounts. He supports a small increase in the retirement age -- now 65 for full benefits but gradually rising to 67 -- and slowing down inflation rates on payments to higher-income recipients.

MICHELE BACHMANN - The Minnesota Congresswoman believes the system should be reformed and says that she would ensure any reform to Social Security would only affect those 55 and younger. She has said in the past that Social Security money should be protected from being spent on anything other than that program.

JON HUNTSMAN - The former governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to China believes Social Security can be saved. The retirement age should be raised to the 85th percentile of the average life span in the U.S., and the formula that determines inflation should be changed to peg it to the Consumer Price Index. He also says that a form of means testing should be considered, in which higher-income residents would not be getting benefits they do not need if they can support themselves without it.

RON PAUL - The Texas Congressman says Social Security money should be used only for Social Security, not as general revenue for the budget. He believes that the program is unconstitutional, but should be maintained to benefit seniors who count on it. Younger workers should be allowed to opt out and start their own privately-invested retirement funds, and current benefits would be funded in their absence by cutting back government spending on foreign aid and nation building.

NEWT GINGRICH - The former U.S. House speaker advocates a plan for everyone under an estimated age of 40 to get their own Social Security accounts, and everyone above that age stay in the current system. He would not "necessarily" raise the retirement age, and says that a better economy and getting rid of government waste would help save the program.

RICK SANTORUM The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has said in previous campaigns that raising the age of retirement, or a similar move, would be an option to help reform the social security system. Earlier this year, he told a radio station in New Hampshire that one of the problems with the system is that there are not enough workers in America to support the retirees because abortion rates are too high.

HERMAN CAIN - The former Godfather's Pizza CEO supports optional personal retirement accounts, available to workers around the age of 40 and younger. Current seniors would not be affected, and he does not support state-level Social Security programs.

GARY JOHNSON - The former New Mexico governor has said the retirement age should be raised, and that optional personal retirement accounts should be available. He also supports means testing as another way to help reform the Social Security system.

SOURCES: Campaign websites, debate quotes and interview videos.

(Reporting by Karen Brooks and Lauren Keiper; Editing by Greg McCune)

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