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Democrats Prep For Bush Visits

Red-Staters Mull Best Message

With a political whirlwind over Social Security looming later this week, seven red-state Senate Democrats have been working together to forge a tailored message to counter President Bush’s road trip following his State of the Union address.

After his annual address tonight, Bush will stump in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida — states that include seven Senate Democrats, three of whom face re-election in 2006 in races that could become highly competitive.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the only way President Bush can pass his top legislative priority — to partially privatize Social Security — is to win some support from Democrats. And the most likely targets are considered Democratic Senators in states Bush won in November by large margins.

The Democrats seeking to counter visits by Bush have not been pressured to agree to a one-size-fits-all message. Instead, they have held staff-level meetings to brainstorm about how to ensure that their voices are heard when Bush undertakes a five-state tour to stump for his plan.

In at least four of the five states, the Democrats will get some cover from the AARP, which is running newspaper ads in the states that Bush is visiting urging opposition to any privatization. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is running similar radio ads in those states, several aides said.

As part of the organizing effort, the chiefs of staff and top press advisers to the seven Democrats targeted on Bush’s swing — Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — met Monday in Conrad’s office to mull over the different message strategies they could use to counter Bush’s trip. Reid’s chief of staff and communications director, Susan McCue and Jim Manley, also attended to lend advice on the issue.

That meeting itself was an outgrowth of a new round of meetings that are being held weekly, for the time being, among the communications directors of Senators from states Bush won. “It’s a recognition of the fact that we have not been as coordinated in the past as we should have been,” said a Senate aide involved in some of the meetings.

Among the Democrats targeted by Bush’s barn-storming campaign, Baucus, the ranking member of the Finance Committee and the minority’s point man on Social Security, is taking the most aggressive approach to counter-punching Bush. Baucus headed into Tuesday’s weekly Caucus luncheon with a memo titled “The Politics of Social Security” under his left arm and a pair of charts under his right arm.

A key negotiator with the White House on past tax deals, Baucus has been a vocal critic of the White House effort so far and is showing no signs of cooperation on any plan that carves money out of the program and puts it into the markets.

Baucus will host a listening session with elderly constituents in Great Falls, Mont., Thursday afternoon, a meeting that Democratic aides hope will demonstrate substantial opposition to privatizing the program.

Four hours later, when Bush arrives in Great Falls, Baucus plans to be on stage with the president at his town-hall discussion of Social Security, a program that Bush has dubbed to be in “crisis” and in need of a major overhaul.

The next day, Baucus will hold another listening session with elderly constituents in Billings, the state’s largest media market.

Asked Tuesday if he thought Democrats could match Bush’s rhetoric on the issue of Social Security, Baucus said he was “absolutely sure” they could.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), just one month into the job as the chamber’s top Democrat, declared that not a single Democrat would support a plan that privatized Social Security funds.

In the past two election cycles, Democrats have won just four competitive Senate races in states that Bush won in 2000 and 2004 — those won by Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.). By contrast, they lost more than a dozen other races in red states.

In addition to those electoral defeats, Democrats watched Bush outmaneuver them several times during his first term by enacting a series of tax cuts that by some estimates will total more than $2 trillion over a 10-year projection.

On Social Security, Democrats hope to mobilize early and prevent anyone in the Caucus from caving to the president’s plan on Social Security because of home-state political pressure to do so.

One Senate aide involved in the planning called it part of an “aggressive” effort to get in front of Bush on an issue that remains a “unifying principle,” even for those Senators who hail from states Bush won by large margins.

The Democrat in the tightest political spot is Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who has been asked to attend a meeting with Bush Friday morning in Omaha, before joining the president on stage at a planned town hall on Social Security there.

While some Democrats wondered whether the event was also designed to attract media attention in nearby Iowa, to keep pressure on Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to support the president’s emerging plan, most agree that Nelson is the main target. On Tuesday he avoided taking any position on the proposal since Bush has yet to lay out the specifics.

Nelson called the talk so far a bunch of “generalities and what-ifs.” Despite managing to avoid a top-tier opponent so far for his 2006 race, Nelson is expected to be one of the GOP’s top targets.

Some Democrats, including Lincoln and Pryor, have decided to not attend the president’s events in their state.

While each Democrat is crafting his or her own individualized response to Bush’s trip, there is some level of agreement that two critical points will be driven home by every Democrat in the weeks ahead. Aides identified those areas as opposition to paying for the overhaul by cutting benefits, and opposition to adding $2 trillion to the national debt, which is what some estimate the transition costs to pay for the private accounts.

“That pretty much unifies the Caucus,” an aide said.

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