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President ends trip with familiar pitch

Floridians hear the same theme as four other states: A revamp is needed to save the system from bankruptcy.

Published February 5, 2005

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
President Bush discusses Social Security policy with Jim Browne, left, and Jennifer Lalani, center, at Tampa Convention Center on Friday.

TAMPA - A whirlwind celebrity road show with headliner George W. Bush brought its finale to Tampa Friday afternoon.

It was part scripted play, part rock concert, packaged together to make a modern day political campaign rally.

President Bush crossed the nation the past two days with a message for the American public: Congress needs to revamp the 70-year-old Social Security system to save it from bankruptcy.

At each of the five stops on his tour, the White House staged a carefully orchestrated event. There were charts with red ink showing Social Security's eventual shortcomings. A group of hand-selected people invited on stage to bolster Bush's argument, the faces changing at each stop, but always fitting a prescribed demographic. And carefully-picked audiences, absolutely enthralled with their president.

Bush's remarks at Tampa's convention center evoked cheers from the hundreds of Floridians lucky enough to get tickets through Republican groups, elected officials or employers. High school and college students worried about paying for retirement sat next to retirees receiving Social Security.

"I think now is the time to take on the issue," Bush said. "And that's exactly what I intend to do. That's why I have been to five states ... and that's why I'm going to continue traveling our country, saying to the American people, here's the problem."

It was a carbon copy of shows in Fargo, N.D., Great Falls, Mont., Omaha, Neb., and Little Rock, Ark. At each stop he told the same jokes, making fun of his advancing age or graying hair. At each stop he thanked his lucky stars that Laura deigned to marry him. And at each stop he wanted to have some "plain" conversation with the audience about Social Security. The president wants to let younger workers divert up to two-thirds of their payroll taxes to individual investment accounts to earn money for retirement. His plan faces opposition even from some members of his own party, so the president needs support from some Democratic senators.

His two-day swing took him to five states that are home to at least one Democratic senator that the president is trying to woo, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. The president won all five of the states in November; all five have some of the nation's older populations.

Bush and his senior adviser Karl Rove know that getting Congress to follow them on major public policy issues sometimes means taking a vigorous campaign across the nation. He did the same in his first term to gain support for proposals to cut taxes and create a Medicare drug plan, but changing the nation's most popular and expensive federal program may prove more difficult.

"That was part of the reason he chose this area - he knew he would have a lot of support," said Eric VanKley, a wrestling coach at a small private college in Great Falls. "He wanted to start with the easy states."

Outside each event, dozens of protesters organized by national groups held white-and-yellow printed signs, "Hands off my Social Security," but they hardly caused a stir. In Omaha, a heckler in the stands yelled that Bush was a liar; volunteers in white shirts surrounded him and whisked him away.

Wherever he went, Bush challenged Congress to do something about Social Security despite the political consequences.

"I believe the role of a president, and I believe the role of a Congress is to confront problems and not pass them on to future generations," Bush told a crowd of 6,000 at the basketball arena at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

The events were billed as "conversations with the president" and "town hall meetings," but Bush didn't speak much to the public. In some cases, including Tampa, you couldn't get tickets unless you knew the right person. In other cases, including Fargo, a limited number of tickets were distributed to the public, but the demand far outweighed the number.

Those in the audience got tickets from Republican members of Congress or volunteers to the Republican Party. One man got his from a friend whose daughter babysits for a Secret Service agent. A college student in Fargo went to a College Republicans meeting for the first time, just for a ticket.

Most people had voted for Bush in November. Many said they support his proposal to change Social Security not because they know the details - but because it has Bush's seal of approval.

Clara Enriquez, 67, a retired Cuban-American living in Tampa since 1969, receives Social Security but wants to see a change for her children. She volunteered for Bush's campaign last year and received a ticket through the office of the president's younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Why did she want a ticket to the event?

"Because I like him. I just love him," said Enriquez, who was wearing a button of the president and first lady. "He's a great person, and a good example."

In Fargo, about 40 residents were barred from the event, including a city commissioner and a deputy Democratic campaign manager. That was enough for the Democrats to take up the cause Friday.

"It is disgusting and unpatriotic for President Bush to keep American taxpayers out of a public event they paid for just because they might disagree with his plan to privatize Social Security," Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said. "If Bush really wants to have an open dialogue about the issue, he should welcome every American citizen to the table."

Republican and Democratic politicians alike have been using staged events for selected audiences since former President Richard Nixon made the format popular.

"It is always this staged," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's a convenient way to build support. It's not some kind of town hall meeting. This is an event to try to gain momentum. So they are going to look for people who basically have this agenda."

Wearing a dark suit and red tie at all five events, Bush played to the crowd in the down-home, folksy way he often reverts to outside Washington. In Fargo, he complimented the Bison, the successful North Dakota State women's basketball team. In Montana, he remarked how pleased he was to be someplace where cowboy hats outnumber suits.

Beyond the local color, though, the words and phrasing were the same from state to state. Social Security will be "flat bust" in less than 40 years and won't be able to pay benefits for today's younger workers. Personal investments would provide the next generation of seniors with "security" and "flexibility." Retirees and workers older than 55 won't be affected by any changes.

"I fully understand that oftentimes when they stress the Social Security issue, people try to scare you about it, saying, if old George W. has his way, you're not going to get a dime. Well, that's not the way it's going to work," Bush said in all five states. "The truth of the matter is, you're going to get your checks if you're retired or near retirement. It's just a fact."

Everywhere he went, the crowds were crazy for the president. Thousands stood in a line snaking around a Montana arena waiting for Bush to arrive; fans in North Dakota camped out the night before. They gave him repeated standing ovations, and screamed his name. The crowd in Tampa was smaller and calmer than at the jam-packed arenas in the Midwest, but just as appreciative.

At each stop, the president was joined by four to five people representing different phases of life. There was the senior who doesn't want his benefits to change. The young couple who don't think Social Security will be available to them when they retire. The financially savvy person who understands investment accounts.

And there was an expert at each stop - someone not affiliated with the federal government who knows finances and the Social Security system.

In Fargo and Great Falls, that was Jeffrey Brown, a finance professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Do you have any - if you don't like them, go ahead and say it, but do you have any problems with the personal retirement accounts?" Bush asked.

"Absolutely not," Brown replied.

"I was hoping that would be the answer," Bush said with a smile.

[Last modified February 6, 2005, 11:08:16]

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