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Democrats Counter Bush on Social Security by Taking Fight to States

Senate Democratic leaders will target two Republican leaders seeking re-election in 2006 by visiting their states in a two-day blitz next week that’s designed to drum up opposition to President Bush’s effort to overhaul Social Security.

The Democrats’ campaign-style rallies are designed to counter Bush’s own recent barnstorming tour across the country, in which the president has tried to sell his plan for allowing Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security benefits into a personal account.

Democratic leaders are planning visits to Pennsylvania on March 4 and Arizona on March 5 to condemn Bush and his GOP allies for trying to uproot the current Social Security system.

Specifically, Democrats will single out Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R) for seconding Bush’s contention that the system is in “crisis” — a notion Democrats roundly dispute.

Democrats say they plan to mount vigorous challenges to both GOP Senators in 2006, in a bid to wrest control of the Senate from Republican hands. Santorum serves as the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, while Kyl is the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

“Both Pennsylvania and Arizona have a large percentage of seniors, and the fact that they also have 2006 Senate races is a bonus for us,” said a Democratic source, who requested anonymity.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) will lead the tour, with other Democratic Senators expected to join at different stops.

The Democratic officeholders will visit four states during the 48-hour swing, kicking it off with an event in New York City before heading to Philadelphia for an afternoon rally. The next day, the Senators will fly to Arizona before wrapping up the tour in Reid’s home state.

John Brabender, Santorum’s media consultant, dismissed the Democratic plan to visit Pennsylvania. He charged that “it is a clear sign that again Democrats have decided politics ahead of policy and politics ahead of people.”

While acknowledging that Democrats see Santorum “as a target,” Brabender said that “this is the same Rick Santorum they had placed as their No. 1 target in 2000 only to see him elected by a comfortable margin.”

Santorum defeated then-Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) by six points in 2000.

With the exception of a few town hall meetings Democrats are holding in their home states this week, the fly-around is the first organized effort by the Senate leadership to take the Social Security policy battle beyond the Beltway.

“This is an attempt to move beyond Capitol Hill and start taking the debate to the American people,” said another Democratic source with knowledge of the trip.

Already, plans are under way by powerful unions and other Democratic interest groups to launch a massive grass-roots advocacy campaign aimed at discrediting Bush’s Social Security plan.

The Democratic fly-around is part of a counteroffensive against Bush’s aggressive use of the White House bully pulpit to sell the plan, as well as the well-funded campaign being run by supporters of the president’s proposal.

In fact, the president appeared with Santorum at a Feb. 10 event in Pennsylvania to promote his Social Security plan. And earlier this month, Bush visited five states with potentially vulnerable Democratic Senators, hoping to pressure them to support his proposal to reform Social Security. Four of those states, Florida, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, will feature Senate races in 2006.

Santorum was already at the very top of the Democratic wish list of Senate takeover opportunities, given his staunchly conservative views on social issues in a state that has voted increasingly Democratic for president.

Most observers have generally not considered Kyl to be as vulnerable.

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