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Social Security Revamp Message Is Honed to Appeal to Latinos

Times Staff Writers

With polls showing public support slipping away for President Bush’s plan to transform Social Security, the White House is revving up efforts to win over traditionally Democratic constituencies.

The latest example came Thursday, in a Spanish-language op-ed article written by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who argued that Bush’s push to revamp Social Security, which includes the creation of private retirement accounts, was of “utmost importance” to Latinos.

In the column appearing in La Opinion, Gutierrez wrote that the rising number of young Latinos in the workforce and the disproportionate dependence of Latino retirees on Social Security meant they had the most to lose if Bush’s plans were not adopted.

Administration officials said that the Gutierrez message -- written as a response to a Monday editorial in La Opinion warning that Latinos stood to lose from private accounts -- would be repeated in White House staff briefings with Latino leaders and in speeches to gatherings of Spanish-speakers across the nation as part of the broader push to convince the public and Congress to back private accounts.

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Opponents of the accounts also elevated their Latino outreach, with one advocacy group backed by the AFL-CIO planning a series of town hall meetings in heavily Latino areas, and a leading Cuban American Democrat sending an e-mail to Spanish-speaking supporters. The e-mail warned that a shift to worker-owned accounts could hurt lower-income Latinos who had less experience with private investing than other groups did.

“By privatizing Social Security and allowing the stock market to dictate the size of individuals’ checks, Republicans are destroying the ability for Latinos to pay into a reliable retirement system and trust they will have a steady income for retirement,” wrote Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Thursday’s efforts underscore increasingly aggressive attempts by opponents and backers of private accounts to court African Americans, women, seniors, young people and others with carefully honed messages -- the latest indication that the debate over Social Security is taking on the character of a presidential election campaign.

Bush, who sparked the debate by spotlighting the restructuring of Social Security as his top domestic priority, told reporters Thursday that he had “a lot more work to do” in making his case.

His comment came after concerns were expressed by some Republican lawmakers, based on meetings with constituents during a congressional recess last week, that the Bush plan had roused little enthusiasm.

Bush, however, said he believed he was “making progress on the first stage of getting anything complicated and difficult done in Washington -- and that is to explain the problem.”

He added: “And the surveys I have seen, at least, say that the American people understand we have a problem.”

Bush, who has visited nine states on his Social Security campaign since his State of the Union address in late January, is to appear today in Westfield, N.J., and South Bend, Ind., to promote his plan. He plans a two-day outing next week, with stops in Shreveport, La., Memphis, Tenn., Montgomery, Ala., and Louisville, Ky.

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Thursday backed off from comments he had made this week suggesting that a Social Security overhaul might have to wait until next year. “We need to do this, and we will do it, this year,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Bush argues that unless Social Security is changed, the system will go broke by midcentury. Under his plan, workers born after 1950 would be able to divert some of their payroll taxes into privately held stocks and bonds that he claims could generate more retirement savings than the existing system, in which workers’ payroll taxes pay for benefits for current retirees.

Bush has not said how he would pay for the lost payroll taxes -- estimated to be at least $1 trillion -- and opponents charge that the private accounts would eliminate a critical safety net of guaranteed benefits for future retirees.

Several recent polls have shown support for private accounts slipping. Of particular concern to administration officials were results showing that key target groups were increasingly skeptical of the plan.

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Latinos, whose support for Bush grew in his 2004 reelection, backed private accounts overwhelmingly within weeks of the election, according to surveys. But now a majority either opposes them or isn’t sure, according to a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The same trend was evident among blacks and women, the new poll found.

In the campaign of targeted messaging, Democrats went on the offensive Thursday with women. At a round-table discussion in Washington that included several female senators, Democrats pressed their case that Bush’s plan could prove devastating for women who relied on Social Security benefits.

Some of the senators told personal stories of the importance of the retirement program. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said that her mother had to cut deeply into family savings to care for her father during the nine years he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and that Social Security was “the only thing left.”

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And the Republican National Committee issued a paper headlined “Strengthening Social Security Will Benefit Women.” It argued that the current system penalized single working women, who were not eligible for the same benefits as high-income couples.

Republican strategists said Thursday’s activity foreshadowed aggressive efforts to come in the months ahead -- more speeches by administration surrogates, ads in women’s magazines and on Spanish-language radio stations, GOP appearances on networks such as Univision and continued courting of influential black and Latino church pastors.

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Times staff writers Johanna Neuman, Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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