Sunday, August 20, 2006

Republican and Democratic candidates have been sparring over Social Security in key races in New Jersey, Florida, Colorado, Washington and Pennsylvania, with some Republicans distancing themselves from President Bush’s idea to create personal retirement accounts.

Democratic leaders made Social Security one of their key issues this election year, warning that Republicans want to privatize the program. Republicans say that’s a scare tactic and that Democrats have no plan of their own to fix a system that is set to dole out more than it collects beginning in 2017.

In Florida, which has a large elderly population, Democratic challenger Ron Klein has criticized Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. for supporting the idea of Social Security private accounts. Mr. Bush tried unsuccessfully last year to persuade the public to support the idea of diverting part of payroll taxes into private accounts for younger workers to invest for their retirement.

Mr. Shaw is running a television ad distancing himself from Mr. Bush on the issue and highlighting his own Social Security proposal, which he said wouldn’t cut benefits, raise taxes or privatize the system.

“Both President Bush and Clay Shaw are pushing privatization plans,” said Mr. Klein’s campaign manager, Brian Smoot.

In Pennsylvania, which also has a large number of seniors, Democratic challenger Bob Casey blasted Republican Sen. Rick Santorum for being a key supporter of “privatization.”

Mr. Santorum is running two television ads touting legislation he crafted to guarantee that those born before 1950 receive their promised Social Security benefits. Spokeswoman Virginia Davis said Mr. Santorum still supports the personal accounts for younger workers but is pushing his senior-guarantee bill.

Mr. Casey’s spokesman, Larry Smar, said Mr. Santorum is “hiding from his record.”

When asked about Mr. Casey’s own ideas for Social Security, Mr. Smar said Mr. Casey thinks growing the economy will boost the Social Security’s solvency.

Similar Social Security squabbles have popped up in the Washington Senate race, New Jersey Senate race and a race for an open House seat in Colorado, where Republican Rick O’Donnell and Democrat Ed Perlmutter are duking it out over the future of the retirement system.

In New Jersey, Sen. Robert Menendez and his Democratic colleagues planned a coordinated campaign to hammer Tom Kean Jr. on Social Security, holding town-hall meetings warning that Mr. Kean has supported private accounts in the past.

“His goal is to hide and run away from his position,” Mr. Menendez said recently.

Mr. Kean’s spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, said that Mr. Kean opposes privatization and that Mr. Menendez has “no credibility” because he voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal aliens as part of the Senate immigration bill.

But Democrats vow to keep up the drumbeat. The advocacy group Americans United has run ads in several states and plans more, warning that Republican control endangers Social Security.

Democrats say Republicans are facing an uphill battle to retain control, partly because last year, they backed Mr. Bush’s unpopular accounts idea.

Republicans reject that and say that despite the few Social Security squabbles, it simply won’t get the traction Democrats want.

“It’s Democratic rhetoric that, come September and October, will fall by the wayside,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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