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Senators Set to Barnstorm

Republican leaders urged Senators in a private meeting Tuesday to rally around President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security, as they began quietly making plans to hold a March rally in a key battleground state to promote the issue.

Meanwhile, Democrats are still finalizing the details of their own national tour next month to whip up opposition to Bush’s plan, a roadshow that will take them coast-to-coast over a two-day period. The clashing public relations efforts come as the two political parties fight to extend their influence beyond the Beltway on an issue expected to be central in next year’s midterm elections.

Already, Bush has sought to put pressure on a handful of Democratic Senators seeking re-election in 2006 by visiting their states earlier this month.

“We are putting together a tour and we will be hitting a number of states,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “As you know, the president is taking his case to the American people and we intend to take our case to the American people as well.”

Dorgan said Democrats have not yet worked out the logistics of their national tour and he would not name the states where they plan to hold rallies. Republicans, though, are considering holding a national town meeting in either Florida or Pennsylvania next month to advance Bush’s proposal, GOP sources said.

“We are talking about taking the show on the road nationally, and I am hopeful we can convince some of our folks to do that,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). While the planning is still in its formative stages, the town hall meeting could include Senate Republican leaders and a member of the Bush administration.

With Democratic Senators all but unified against Bush’s call to privatize a portion of Social Security, GOP leaders are looking outside of Washington, D.C., to build support for the idea that the current retirement savings system is in crisis and must be fixed now.

Senate leaders and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman encouraged Senators to hold town hall meetings during next week’s recess to promote overhauling the Social Security system. The Senators were also shown a video of Bush’s recent town hall meetings where he spoke about the need for reform.

“Mehlman was trying to convince us from the president’s practical experience that this is good politics and policy,” said a Republican, who spoke freely about the discussion on the condition of anonymity. “The water is good. Jump in.”

Republicans were issued comprehensive talking points on compact discs, and all GOP offices will receive a copy of the Bush video to show at their own town halls next week. The presentation is knitted together with the theme “The Perfect Storm” in an effort to convince the public immediate action needs to be taken to avert a financial disaster.

Making their case with a series of graphs, Republicans say that baby boomers will begin to retire in three years; Americans are living longer; and Americans are having fewer children. Put together, Social Security is in jeopardy, according to the Republican PowerPoint presentation given to Republican Senators.

“I stressed to my colleagues of the importance of getting out and doing town meetings to talk about this, listening to people, both seniors and young people, as to how they would like to see the Social Security system changed,” Santorum said. “And what they see as the problem, and doing an education job on all voters as to what the degree of the problem is and what the options are to solve it.”

But Republican leaders acknowledged it is going to be a difficult legislative fight and will not be an issue brought to the Senate floor in the near future.

“We have a lot of education to do, both internally with our Members and staff, as well as externally with the people of America,” Santorum said. “And we have ideas. We want to hear from people who come here to Washington as well as going out on the road and listening to what people back home have to say about this issue.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) echoed Santorum’s assessment that it is going to be a hard-fought battle, but added it is his “objective” to pass legislation this year.

“Until people recognize there’s a problem, it’s hard to get very far with either selling, explaining or describing solutions to the problem,” Frist said. “But we’re making headway.”

Democrats said they, too, would be holding town meetings in their states on the subject over the recess. “I think you are going to be finding town meetings across the country by Members of the House and Senate,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

As for what the Democratic message will be, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) simply said, “Privatization is a non-starter.”

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