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In Fla., Kerry hits Bush on Social Security

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- John F. Kerry, appearing in the epicenter of the 2000 election dispute, yesterday appealed for support from Florida's critical blocs of senior citizen and Jewish voters with a pledge not to privatize Social Security and a vigorous recitation of his long support for Israel.

"Let me make it clear: I will never privatize Social Security ever, ever, ever," the Democratic presidential nominee told a crowd of several hundred at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.

He called the President Bush's proposal to allow young workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes a scheme to enrich financial service companies, key donors to Bush. His campaign released a study by a Chicago professor arguing that the plan will trigger a 45 percent cut in benefits for Social Security recipients.

In a sign of the campaign's fresh emphasis on responding rapidly to the Bush team, Kerry's new campaign spokesman, Mike McCurry, also chided Bush for launching a television commercial showing Kerry windsurfing and accusing him of frequently changing his positions on Iraq and other issues. By yesterday afternoon, the campaign had arranged a conference call with two former senior military officers, retired Joint Chiefs chairman William Crowe and retired Air Force general Merrill "Tony" McPeak, to offer their own rebuttal.

McCurry, speaking with reporters aboard Kerry's campaign plane, said, "That's not the proper way to be talking about this very important issue at a time when people are being beheaded and people are anxious about what's going on on the ground."

The campaign followed up with a new ad of its own, titled "Juvenile," saying, "In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush's answer is to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad." It will air in the same markets where the Bush ad is seen.

In West Palm Beach, Kerry chastised the president for pushing a new Medicare prescription drug coverage plan that, among other things, blocks the bulk purchasing of prescription drugs or the importation of cheaper medicines from Canada.

Turning to Social Security, he said Bush's proposal for partial privatization would "break the generational compact" dating to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

He said such a program could drain $2 trillion from the existing system by reducing the money paid into it. Kerry said such changes could particularly hurt women -- another voting bloc he has been targeting -- because they tend to live longer and thus can be more reliant on Social Security benefits.

"We need a president who is not going to put the women of America at risk, " Kerry said.

The Bush-Cheney campaign accused Kerry of supporting Social Security tax increases and criticized him for missing votes on the president's Medicare plan while he campaigned this year.

"John Kerry has voted for higher taxes on Social Security benefits eight times and has refused to address the $10 trillion funding gap in Social Security," said Steve Schmidt, a campaign spokesman for the president.

The appearance of a presidential candidate in West Palm Beach, part of Palm Beach County, evoked memories of the 2000 general election dispute over the county's butterfly ballot and its pregnant and hanging chads. In the end, Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore after a dispute about the state's balloting went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Kerry referred to the problems of the 2000 election, vowing to make sure every vote would be counted this November. Reaching out to the region's numerous Jewish voters, he also challenged Republicans who argue Bush would be a stronger friend of Israel than Kerry. The senator pointed to what he called a 20-year record of supporting the Jewish state and said simply, "I've been there."

Later, he added: "I believe I can do a better job of making Israel safer. I can do a better job of restoring Israel's strength."

McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton, told reporters that Kerry would also continue to hammer the Bush administration over its handling of the postwar situation in Iraq, even as it spends time taking about health care, Social Security, and other domestic issues.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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