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Groups on both sides of the Social Security fight will pour millions of dollars into what is already a bruising battle that has all the hallmarks of a presidential campaign.
At question is whether the system truly needs fundamental change in order to save it for future generations, and whether President Bush's plan to let workers invest part of their Social Security in private accounts will help or hurt the situation.
The country's leading organization for seniors, the AARP -- which strongly opposes Mr. Bush's private account idea -- has declared the issue its top priority, and already has spent at least $5 million on ads.
And MoveOn.org once again is going head-to-head with the Republican National Committee and Progress for America (PFA), just like it did in last year's presidential campaign.
"It's not quite as big [as the presidential fight], but it is an epic battle," said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future (CAF), which is coordinating a large coalition of groups, including MoveOn.org, in raising $30 million to oppose Mr. Bush's effort.
"I think it is going to be a long sustained fight," said Brian McCabe, spokesman for PFA, a group that's planning to spend $20 million to $25 million this year -- on par with what was spent on the election last year -- to aggressively explain and defend Mr. Bush's ideas on Social Security.
PFA has run two television ads so far, explaining that Social Security faces future financial trouble, stressing the importance of personal accounts and reminding viewers that no one older than 55 would be affected by Mr. Bush's proposed changes. Like the AARP, it is planning extensive grass-roots mobilization, including e-mails and phone calls to its members, spots on talk radio and direct-mail advocacy.
Club for Growth has committed $10 million to support private accounts, and already is running television ads targeting undecided lawmakers. It also hired its first lobbyist and started a blog on its Web site.
Meanwhile, AARP is arguing the dangers of private accounts by organizing member forums across the country. It is partnering with Rock the Vote to reach younger people and discussing the issue on its Web site blog, newsletter and magazine. The group also is encouraging members to speak out against the private accounts idea. About 250,000 AARP members already have contacted their lawmakers.
"This is our number one legislative priority," AARP spokeswoman Lisa Davis said of Social Security. "We will commit our resources to this. ... We're going to continue to be aggressive."
She explained that while Social Security should be strengthened, "the solution shouldn't be worse than the problem," and private accounts drained from Social Security simply won't help make the system solvent.
But USANext is going to be aggressive in debunking that message, and has begun a $10 million campaign called "Stop Scaring Seniors Now" aimed at criticizing AARP, countering its claims and peeling away at least 1 million AARP members to support the president's plan, said Charlie Jarvis, chairman and chief executive of the 1.5-million-member lobbying group.
"Their top objective is defeating President Bush's objectives on Social Security, and our top objective is to make sure they fail miserably," Mr. Jarvis said.
This is not the first nasty skirmish. Earlier this month, the RNC attacked a Social Security television ad that MoveOn.org was running. The committee sent a letter to television stations, asking them not to run the ad because it "falsely and maliciously" asserted Mr. Bush's Social Security plan would cut benefits by 46 percent to pay for private accounts.
"President Bush has repeatedly emphasized that his proposal for Social Security reform does not include any 'cut' in current benefits," read the Feb. 3 RNC letter to station managers. "Organizations such as MoveOn.org have a legitimate First Amendment right to participate in political debate, but MoveOn.org has no right to knowingly and willfully spread false information in a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people."
RNC spokesman Danny Diaz said his group is "not going to cede an inch to any group that tries to mislead voters about the president's vision."
As battles such as this break out, groups are pooling their efforts.
PFA has been working with For Our Grandchildren, the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The RNC also has been holding regular conference calls with PFA and the House and Senate Republican conferences to share information.
The Democratic National Committee also is doing some information sharing, and Mr. Hickey said CAF is talking a lot to the AARP.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the intense effort by outside groups, "is a demonstration of how important outside groups believe this program is to the quality of life for the people they represent."
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