- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in a sign of growing confidence in his presidential candidacy, soon will begin campaigning for an idea that has long been feared as the deadly "third rail" of American politics: partially privatizing Social Security.

In series of upcoming speeches and policy initiatives dealing with "family security," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee plans to promote his proposal to give workers the option of putting a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into their own private investment retirement accounts, his campaign aides said.

"He will begin talking about it soon. He is not moving away from Social Security reform. He believes his proposal is the right approach to saving Social Security," said a key Bush adviser.

Mr. Bush's proposal, which he avoided raising during the primaries, would dramatically change the New Deal-era program by letting workers invest a part of their automatically deducted payroll taxes into stock or bond funds that would produce much higher investment returns on their contributions over their working lives than the 1 percent to 2 percent that Social Security now offers future beneficiaries.

Mr. Bush's campaign aides also said that he plans to step up his attacks on Vice President Al Gore for his role in the 1996 White House campaign-finance scandals that are still under investigation by the Justice Department. Mr. Gore was interviewed for four hours last week by the department's campaign-finance task force chief and four FBI agents.

"This week is the anniversary of the Buddhist temple fund-raiser, and it will not go unnoticed. He intends to talk about it," a Bush campaign aide told The Washington Times yesterday.

Mr. Bush plans to raise the issue when he addresses a National Talk Radio Hosts gathering in New York Saturday. Mr. Gore attended a campaign fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in California on April 28, 1996, where he collected $140,000 in illegal donations to the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Mr. Gore at first denied that he knew the event was a fund-raiser, but other evidence later showed that he was aware of the money-raising nature of the event. A Justice Department probe led to the conviction of one of his close associates for illegal fund-raising activities, but Attorney General Janet Reno declined to name an independent counsel to investigate further Mr. Gore's role in the scandal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore, who has been keeping a low profile since clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in March, has begun a series of "contrast" speeches to sharpen his differences with Mr. Bush and to energize his party's base.

Mr. Gore has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks from Democrats who complain that he has not been visible enough, has lost his message and has let Mr. Bush seize the offensive and lengthen his lead in the polls. The latest Gallup Poll has Mr. Gore running 9 points behind the Texas governor.

"I think he's been low-profile enough," a senior Gore campaign official said yesterday.

"We haven't undertaken a full offensive effort to define Bush as we did with [former Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bill] Bradley during the primaries. We have not engaged him yet," the official said.

"But I don't think a lot of people are paying attention right now to the campaign. The sky is certainly not falling," he said.

"You haven't seen that much of Gore lately," acknowledged Democratic campaign strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "We haven't really heard that much of a thematic message since the primaries."

Mr. Gore has been spending much of his time this month raising money for his campaign to get him through the long spring and summer months before he is to receive matching funds for the fall election campaign.

Mr. Bush been raising funds, too, but he also has been busily announcing a series of high-profile tax-incentive proposals to help lower-income families buy health insurance, buy homes and build savings all aimed at improving his image as a self-described "compassionate conservative."

But it is his proposal to reduce long-term taxpayer liability for the Social Security program by gradually shifting workers into private investments that is filled with the most political risk.

The last Republican presidential nominee to suggest privatizing Social Security was the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to President Johnson in 1964. After that experience, politicians often referred to Social Security as "the third rail" of American politics, likening it to a subway's electrified third rail. "Touch it and you will die," went the refrain.

But this time, the idea has won support from key Democrats, including New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Polls also show that the idea is especially popular with a growing investor class of voters, with younger workers and many minorities.

Bush advisers say that they expect Mr. Bush to talk generally about giving workers the option of building larger retirement pensions that they would control and could depend on, as well as estates that they can leave to their heirs. But they said it was unlikely that he would propose a full-fledged legislative plan.

"There is no reason to propose a plan that Gore and the Democrats can shoot down," said an economic adviser who has briefed Mr. Bush on the issue. "This is a big issue that will have to be worked out with Congress."

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