Under attack by opponent Jack Kemp for his record on Social Security, Republican presidential contender Bob Dole said Friday he would be willing to exempt Social Security recipients from a proposed federal spending freeze--a move that would dull the edge of his deficit reduction plan.
The spending freeze has been the principal item on Dole's campaign agenda. He has argued that it would be acceptable because it would be fair, excluding no one except low-income Americans.
Originally, he called for a one-year freeze on government spending that he said would save $70 billion. Friday, however, Dole began to back away from that approach.
Can't Get 'Hard Freeze'
"Now, that's a hard freeze, but you and I are not going to get a hard freeze," Dole said here. In its place, he presented several milder spending plans.
One approach would limit to 2% any increases in government spending, again exempting programs aiding low-income people. The one-year plan would save $50 billion, Dole said.
His latest and most modest proposal would leave "Social Security and other retirement (cost of living increases) the way they are," imposing the 2% spending limit on other government programs, except those affecting the poor. Dole said that that proposal would yield a savings of $35 billion to $40 billion annually.
The challenge for Dole, who portrays himself as a compassionate conservative and as the Republican candidate who can appeal to the broadest segment of voters, is to come up with a credible fiscal policy that combines restraint with generosity toward the neediest members of society.
Like the other Republican candidates for President, Dole has said that he would not raise taxes, but, more than any of his opponents, he has talked about increasing social spending--in such areas as education, Medicaid and drug rehabilitation programs.
New Spending Cuts
When asked how that kind of spending squares with a freeze, Dole responds that any new spending would be balanced by new spending cuts. Dole said Friday that he was not prepared to say where those cuts would be made.
Recently, Rep. Kemp (R-N. Y.) has been running a series of campaign ads here and in Iowa that focus on Dole's vote in 1985 in favor of a bill that would have frozen Social Security cost of living adjustments. President Reagan ultimately withdrew his support of the Social Security freeze, and it was eliminated in the final legislation.
During the period that these ads have been running, Kemp's standing in public opinion polls in New Hampshire has jumped to within five points of Dole's. Vice President George Bush is in first place here.
As Dole campaigned across snowy northern New Hampshire this week, he was peppered with questions about his stand on Social Security, making it clear that Kemp's ads were being noticed.
Dole's latest proposal for a freeze that exempts Social Security may allay the concerns of elderly voters who saw the Kemp commercials. On the other hand, backing away from his original proposal for a hard freeze could raise another kind of problem for a man who was once nicknamed "Senator Straddle" for appearing to equivocate on the intermediate-range missile control treaty. He has since come out in favor of the treaty.
Talks Tough on Deficit
Nevertheless, Dole continues to talk tough about the deficit, describing it as "enemy No. 1," and he continues to deride his opponents, Bush as well as Kemp, for not offering bold plans of their own to reduce the deficit.
"If the vice president has a plan for balancing the budget, he's keeping it a secret," Dole said in Conway, N. H., earlier this week.
Dole said also that he knew nothing of allegations in a Kansas City Star report that his 1986 Senate campaign received what may have been illegal contributions.
"We can't keep track of every contribution, so we've asked the FEC to take a look at it," Dole said.
The Star quoted former executives of a now-bankrupt company, Birdview Satellite Communications Inc., as saying they had been encouraged or ordered to contribute to his campaign and then were reimbursed by the company.
Dole campaign officials have said they had no knowledge of improper contributions.
Federal Election Commission spokeswoman Karen Finucan said in Washington that the agency had received no request for a review from Dole as of Friday.