Bush faithful enlisted for Social Security fight

WASHINGTON — President Bush plans to reactivate his re-election campaign's network of donors and activists to pressure lawmakers to allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, according to Republican strategists.

White House allies are launching a market-research project to figure out how to sell the plan, and Republican marketing and public-relations gurus are building teams of consultants to promote it, the strategists said.

The campaign will use Bush's campaign-honed techniques of mass repetition and never deviating from script, while contending that a Social Security financial crisis is imminent when even GOP figures show it is decades away.

Bush aides said that in addition to mobilizing the Republican faithful and tapping the power of business, they will target minority voters who have been unable to afford to save and might be open to the argument that the president's plan would turn them into investors. The campaign also will aim at younger voters, including many Democrats.

The president plans to ask Congress to allow younger Americans to put two-thirds of their 6.2 percent payroll tax into private accounts, which will offer a set number of investment options. The administration also has signaled it will propose changing the formula that sets initial Social Security benefit levels, cutting promised benefits by nearly one-third in coming decades.

With resistance hardening among congressional Republicans, the White House is escalating efforts to restructure Social Security this year. There will be campaign-style events to win support, precision targeting of vulnerable lawmakers and, as Republicans indicated earlier, television ads to discredit opponents and prop up the Bush plan.

The same architects of Bush's political victories will mastermind the campaign, led by political strategists Karl Rove at the White House and Ken Mehlman at the Republican National Committee.

Bush set the tone for this campaign-style lobbying this week with a speech promoting his plan. During an appearance at Catholic University in Washington yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney sought to counter criticism of the plan's risks, saying that limiting investment options should keep the accounts safe and that harnessing the power of the stock market should provide a far higher rate of return than Social Security reserves now enjoy.

White House budget director Joshua Bolten will begin courting business on the issue with a speech today at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mehlman, who was the Bush-Cheney campaign manager and is the RNC's incoming chairman, said the campaign apparatus — from a national database of 7.5 million e-mail activists to tens of thousands of neighborhood precinct captains — will be used to build congressional support.

"There are a lot of tools we used in the '04 campaign, from regional media to research to rapid response to having surrogates on television," he said.

Democrats said they believe Bush's rollout of the idea has been rocky and new details will just give them more ammunition.

"When they put their plan on paper, the numbers will not add up," said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va. "All these plans will cost more than just coming up with the money to fix the present system. They can spin them and spin them, but that will not change."

Mehlman called the struggle over Social Security "a tremendous opportunity to reach out to African Americans, Latino Americans and others who don't yet have full access to the American dream."

In addition to their efforts, White House and RNC officials are working closely with the same outside groups that helped Bush win re-election, especially Progress for America, a political organization with close ties to Rove. Progress for America is running a television ad on Fox and CNN that compares Bush to Franklin Roosevelt, the father of Social Security. The group also has phoned or e-mailed Republicans, culled from its list of more than 1 million supporters, to enlist their help.

Once the debate intensifies, Progress for America and other pro-Bush groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers plan to target individual congressional members with the precision of an election campaign.

Washington Post reporter Michael Fletcher contributed to this report.