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Seniors Resist GOP Pitches

Senior Republican aides from both chambers retreated to West Virginia this past weekend and received a sobering warning that the party needs to do a better job marketing its Social Security message to seniors.

Leadership aides and chiefs of staff from the House and Senate spent three days at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, the same place the bicameral Member retreat took place in January. While several issues were discussed, Social Security dominated the agenda.

On the message front, the assembled staffers heard presentations from pollsters David Winston of the Winston Group (who is also a Roll Call contributing writer) and Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group, as well as a session on focus group results from Richard Thau of Presentation Testing Inc.

Thau’s Social Security presentation made a particularly strong impression. The crux of it, according to a House GOP leadership aide, was that “we need to court seniors in a much more aggressive way.”

According to several sources who were present, Thau argued that many seniors remain unconvinced that Social Security reform would leave their current benefits intact and that personal accounts would help their children and grandchildren.

Thau suggested that seniors currently feel left out of the debate, as Republicans have focused more on courting younger voters. Older voters are considered naturally more suspicious of change and have also been exposed to a potent anti-reform blitz from AARP.

“You’re going to have a hard time convincing seniors, but that’s not your primary objective,” said another House Republican aide. “The objective is to appeal to seniors through their heirs.”

A Senate Republican aide echoed that assessment, saying, “We still have a lot of convincing to do, however we will continue to make our case to the American people that Social Security will be fine for those that are at or near retirement.”

Winston, meanwhile, shared some more positive results at the retreat. His most recent polling showed that the majority of Americans were convinced that Social Security’s solvency was a problem that needed to be solved, and that they believed Republicans wanted to add personal accounts but not privatize the entire system.

On the other hand, a majority of registered voters still do not believe that President Bush’s proposals, as outlined so far, will strengthen their retirement security.

“We’re clearly leading — if we haven’t already won — the first part of the debate, which is saying that Social Security faces serious problems,” said Winston. “The next phase of proposing a plan and gaining the consensus of Americans is going to be a much more difficult and complicated phase to complete, although given the success of the first phase it is now much more doable.”

While the topic of Social Security dominated the three-day strategy session, top Republican staffers were also briefed by White House officials and received updates on election law and ethics rules.

At times during the retreat, the Senate and House aides attended separate breakout sessions such as the seminar led by Martin Gold for Senate staffers on “Constitutional Issues Relative to the Judicial Nominating Process.” Gold is a former top-ranking Senate staffer who is widely known for his knowledge of Senate floor procedure and authored a controversial article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy on how to dismantle the filibuster on judicial nominations.

Smaller groups also held sessions on the budget, the upcoming supplemental appropriations bill and immigration reform.

A senior GOP aide described the bicameral retreat as an important way to help facilitate “communications between the two legislative bodies.”

“It is very helpful to see what the other hand is doing,” said the GOP aide.

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