Rick Perry Exclusive: The GOP’s Fiery Front-Runner

The hard-charging governor commands a Texas-sized lead in the polls. In an interview with TIME’s Richard Stengel and Mark Halperin, Perry defends his controversial résumé and explains why Americans aren't looking for "political correctness" in 2012. Lightly edited excerpts follow.

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Photograph by Platon for TIME

What does your rise in the polls say about the Republican party?

I think Republican primary voters are not really a lot different than Americans in general. They are very concerned about where this country finds itself economically. They know that we are off-track, that for two-plus years we’ve had an Administration that has been doing an experiment with the American economy and it’s failed miserably, and I think people are fearful. And they’re looking for someone whom they can be excited about.

Now that you’ve been in the race for while, do you feel pressure to temper some of your rhetoric, like calling the Obama administration socialist?

No, I still believe they are socialist. Their policies prove that almost daily. Look, when all the answers emanate from Washington D.C., one size fits all, whether it’s education policy or whether it’s healthcare policy, that is, on its face, socialism.

(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)

But you know there’s concern that you use controversial rhetoric, like calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”

There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there. I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader. I’m comfortable that the rhetoric I have used was both descriptive and spot on. Calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme has been used for years. I don’t think people should be surprised that terminology would be used.

No one gets confused about the point I was making, that we have a system that is now broken. We need to make sure that those on Social Security today — and those approaching it — know without a doubt it will be in place. It will not go away. We’ll have a transitional period for those in mid-career as they’re planning for their retirement. And our young people should be given some options. I don’t know what all of those options need to be yet, but they know instinctively that the program that is there today is not going to be there for them unless there are changes made.

I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken –they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation. Don’t try to scare the senior citizens and those who are on Social Security that it’s somehow going to go away with the mean, old heartless Republican.

How would you change Social Security? Would you consider private accounts or raising the retirement age?

We are having a national discussion now about a lot of different options: raising the [retirement] age, doing it in a structured way for the younger worker, some options from the standpoint of private accounts — all of those ought to be on the table. The idea that we’re going to write a Social Security reform plan today is a bit of a stretch from my perspective. I have accomplished one of the things that I wanted to do by talking about it. Americans are paying attention.

What should happen next in Afghanistan?

I think we need to try to move our men and women home as soon as we can. Not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq as well. And we’ve got to continually reassess our objectives. We need to make strategic decisions based on consultation with our military leaders on the ground, rather than just some arbitrary political promises.

Our objective should be clear. We’ve got to support the Afghan national security forces as they transition into the role of being the stable and appropriate force to sustain that country. Our overall objective has to be to serve that process and to drive out those who would do harm to our country. I think we’ve done that in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have substantial ways to continue to put the pressure on the bad guys, if you will, and I don’t think keeping a large force of United States uniform military in Afghanistan for a long period of time is particularly in the interest of the U.S., or for that matter, in Afghani interest.

Do you believe there should be a Palestinian state?

I certainly have some concerns. The first step in any peaceful negotiation for a two-state solution for the Palestinians is to recognize the right of Israel’s existence. They have to denounce terrorism in both word and deed. And they have to sit down and negotiate with Israel directly. Anything short of that is a non-starter in my opinion.

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You were attacked by your Republican rivals in Monday’s debate for making in-state college tuition available to some illegal immigrants. What is your assessment of the immigration debate in this country?

The issue of education and in-state tuition is a state issue. It’s not a federal issue, and it shouldn’t be a federal issue. If you don’t like that in Arizona, if you don’t like that in Massachusetts, that’s your call. But in the state of Texas, we made the decision that on in-state tuition for young people — and frankly we don’t care what the sound of their last name is — we’re going to help them to become contributing members of society.

The bigger issue is that you’re never going to have a conversation that is anything more than an intellectual exercise about immigration until you secure the border. That is what we must focus on as a country. I do not agree that building a 1,800-mile barrier is thoughtful. It’s an easy answer. I think it’s a cop out for anyone who’s actually been on the border. It’s like building a wall from Bangor, Maine to Miami, Florida. What does work is strategic fencing in your metropolitan areas, having the boots on the ground. We are woefully understaffed on that border.

We have the technology. Predator drones are being flown in United States air space as we speak. Why not fly those from Brownsville, Texas, to El Paso and to Tijuana and back and use that real-time information for local law enforcement, our state law enforcement and our federal counterparts? That’s how you thoughtfully secure that border, and then you can have a discussion about what type of immigration reform we want to consider as a country. But not until then. Too many times, we’ve been told, if we’ll just pass this immigration reform then we’ll secure the border. And it hasn’t happened.

Even if you regret the way you implemented it, do you still think that a mandatory HPV vaccine for teenage girls is good public policy?

I think anything that a state can do to fight cancer is a wise and a thoughtful approach. Did I make an error in how I went about this? Yes, I’ve readily admitted that I shouldn’t have used an executive order. I should have had an opt-in and I should have worked through the legislative process. We work for the people of the state, not the other way around. When they say, we don’t want to go there, we’re not going there. But should we be looking of ways to conquer all of these different cancers that are out there? Absolutely. And I’ll tell you what I am not ashamed of: I have spent the better point of my public service life trying to defend life and find cures for diseases that are impacting millions of people in our country.

Will you improve as a candidate over time?

Oh, I suspect I’ll be better everyday.

Beside the Bible or other religious texts, which book has influenced you most over the last decade?

I don’t know about influencing me the most — I’m reading a couple of books on China right now that are most interesting. After a trip to Beijing and Shanghai and Taiwan, I realized how important that region of the world is to America and to the world. So Kissinger’s book on China, I’m wading through it, and I’m reading another book by Aaron Friedberg [A Contest for Supremacy] that is a really fine read about China, their very long view of the world and our need to really pay attention to what’s going on in that part of the world.

Are you finding it difficult to satisfy the Tea Party?

I speak honestly and I speak plainly. The perfect candidate that everyone ever has agreed with — I’m still waiting for that man or woman to show up. I made a lot of decisions and I’ve got a substantial record. From time to time I’ll get something wrong. I’ll admit it those times when I have not been correct. But people will never have to guess where I stand on an issue.

Read David Von Drehle’s cover story on Perry in this week’s magazine, now available online to subscribers.