Kerry Warns Women on Social Security Policy

Times Staff Writer

In an explicit appeal to female voters, Sen. John F. Kerry argued Wednesday that President Bush’s proposal to create private retirement accounts would weaken Social Security and harm elderly women.

Speaking to a partisan crowd in West Palm Beach, the Democratic presidential candidate cited a new study by a University of Chicago professor which projected that the financial services industry would make $940 billion by managing the private accounts while money was drained from the Social Security fund.

Kerry said the privatization of Social Security could result in a reduction in benefits and that the impact would be disproportionately felt by women, who live longer than men. “Our mothers, our grandmothers are the first ones hurt when benefits go down,” he said.


Kerry said he would never privatize Social Security, pledging to strengthen the program through fiscal reforms and economic growth.

The Bush campaign rejected his charge that the president’s plan would hurt women, saying the Massachusetts senator was making “misleading attacks appealing to people’s fear” in an effort to bolster his standing among female voters.

Spokesman Steve Schmidt noted that the author of the University of Chicago study, Austan Goolsbee, is an informal advisor to the Kerry campaign.

“What the president’s concept will do is strengthen Social Security and help create wealth for every single American,” said Schmidt. “The president’s commitment is clear: There will not be a change in benefits for any retiree or any American nearing retirement.”

Kerry’s effort to woo women comes after recent polls have shown that he has lost his strong lead over Bush among female voters. A New York Times poll released last week showed the president with a five-point lead among registered female voters.

Beyond speeches to women’s organizations, Kerry has not made overt appeals to female voters and has spoken little of his support for abortion rights, apparently out of concern he would alienate swing voters.

Frustrated Democratic women’s activists allied with the campaign have pushed Kerry to step up his efforts to reach female voters, but some said that the candidate’s advisors expressed confidence that they had a lock on the women’s vote.

Meanwhile, Bush has eagerly sought the backing of female voters, with a “W is for Women” theme and a message that he would do a better job of keeping the country safe.

Responding to recent polls, Kerry’s campaign began an effort this week to regain his edge with those voters, which political analysts said was essential if Kerry was to overcome the traditional GOP advantage among men.

During a luncheon Monday hosted by Redbook magazine in New York, he told a largely female audience that he would pursue wage equality and improve education. The next day, he made an appearance on the daytime talk show “Live with Regis and Kelly,” where he recounted his work as a prosecutor to create a specialized rape unit at the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

In Palm Beach on Wednesday, Kerry cited “the unfairness that exists in pension levels, pay levels, divorce” for women.

When Melinda Clark, an unemployed interior designer, asked the candidate if he would appoint men and women equally to his Cabinet, Kerry replied: “Respecting and working with independent-minded women and looking for talent has been part of my political life forever.” He added that he does not support quotas, however.

Kerry’s focus on domestic issues came after he spent two days pressing his critique of Bush’s handling of Iraq. But his advisors said the general message was the same: that the president had made bad decisions.

“On everything from Social Security to Medicare to prescription drugs to retirement, I believe George Bush has made the wrong choices for America,” Kerry said, cheered on by hundreds of supporters at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.

“And what’s happening is he’s driving seniors right out of the middle class -- squeezing, pushing them into places they don’t deserve to be and don’t want to be.”

He also fired at Bush’s foreign policy. When a woman asked about new legislation that proposed reinstating the military draft, Kerry suggested that Bush might support such a move.

“I will tell you this: I will not reinstate the draft,” he said, “unless the United States of America faced the kind the global attack or conflagration where everybody in America understood through an open, democratic process we needed to defend this nation in that means.”

Kerry renewed his accusation that his rival had undermined the fight against terrorism, saying the president should have “stayed focused on Al Qaeda, on the real war on terror, not just on [former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein] -- brutal as he was -- that obsessed him, but diverted him from the real war on terror."Kerry, who has been fighting a cold for the last few days, could barely speak when the town hall meeting began, his voice hoarse and cracking.

To preserve his voice for next week’s first presidential debate, advisors said Kerry would make a morning appearance in Columbus, Ohio, but skip two events in Iowa today, sending running mate John Edwards instead.