Campaigns Brawl for Florida Seniors

Times Staff Writers

A day before Florida’s polls opened for early voting, both major presidential campaigns made fresh appeals to the state’s large elderly population, with Sen. John F. Kerry warning that his rival would privatize Social Security and President Bush launching two ads that disparage his challenger’s abilities to fight terrorism and improve healthcare.

The charges over who would harm senior citizens kicked off the final two weeks of what has been a bitterly contested race for the White House -- and more narrowly, for a victory in Florida, the scene of the 2000 recount. Early voting sites open around the state today.

During a stop in Pembroke Pines, Kerry cited an article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine reporting that Bush recently told donors at a private luncheon that he was going to privatize Social Security if he was reelected. The Bush campaign quickly dismissed the account as fabricated.

“He said, and I quote him, ‘We’re going to move quickly to privatize Social Security,’ ” Kerry said during an afternoon rally in a park, prompting boos from thousands of supporters who spilled across a wide field.

Kerry said Bush’s “January surprise” would lead to cuts in benefits of 25% to 45%, citing estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. He reiterated his pledge to shore up the entitlement program, vowing not to privatize it or reduce benefits. To date, however, the Massachusetts senator has not offered the specifics of how he would strengthen the program, promising only to improve the economy.


Earlier in the day, during a stop at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, Kerry warned that Bush’s plan would amount to less money “for food, for clothing, for the occasional gift for a grandchild.” His campaign also released a television commercial saying Bush “has finally admitted” that he intends to privatize Social Security.

Although the president has proposed creating personal retirement savings accounts -- a move critics say could risk the program’s solvency -- he has never publicly called for the full privatization of Social Security.

On Sunday, his campaign denied that he had any such plan and dismissed the report in the New York Times as “made up,” noting that it was written by Ron Suskind, the author of a book about former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill that was highly critical of the Bush administration.

“John Kerry’s misleading senior scare tactics are just another example of a candidate who will say anything to get elected, no matter how false his accusations,” spokesman Steve Schmidt said in a statement.

Bush, who campaigned in Florida on Saturday, had no public events Sunday. But his campaign began running two ads. One paints the Democrat as a longtime liberal who can’t be trusted to face down terrorists, and the other criticizes Kerry’s healthcare plan as a threat to the doctor-patient relationship.

The 30-second advertisements, cosponsored by the Republican National Committee, debuted in Florida as both campaigns continued their quests for the state’s pivotal 27 electoral votes. The ads were spotted by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising for The Times, and were not announced by the Bush campaign.

Among the sharpest attacks Bush has leveled against Kerry on TV, the spots summarized Bush’s closing argument against Kerry: that on both domestic and foreign affairs, he is a risky liberal.

Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton said the Bush campaign was resorting to “more insults because they can’t talk about the issues.” In one ad seen Saturday in Jacksonville, the screen opens with a shot of charred ground zero wreckage after the 2001 terrorist strikes in Manhattan.

It then scrolls through images of an assailant firing a military assault rifle, a child’s sober face and various scenes meant to evoke the Cold War of the 1980s, including fleeting glimpses of President Reagan, and military operations of the 1990s.

A narrator warns that Kerry “opposed Reagan as he won the Cold War, voted against the first Gulf War, voted to slash intelligence after the first Trade Center attack, repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror. John Kerry and his liberal allies: Are they a risk we can afford to take today?”

Although Kerry criticized aspects of the Reagan-era military buildup, many GOP lawmakers and officials -- including Vice President Dick Cheney, who was then Defense secretary -- agreed with Kerry on cutting funds for certain weapons systems at the end of the Cold War.

In a second Bush ad seen in West Palm Beach on Sunday, an elderly man on a hospital bed is talking with a doctor. The viewer is then shown a confusing government flow chart that ridicules Kerry’s healthcare plan.

In a voice-over, the narrator accuses Kerry and “liberals in Congress” of backing a “big, government-run” healthcare plan that would lead to “rationing, less access, fewer choices, long waits.” Many independent analysts disagree with Bush’s description of the consequences of Kerry’s plan -- which would be voluntary, not mandatory -- noting that the Democrat seeks to expand existing programs, not create new ones.