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Kerry seizes on news article about Social Security remarks

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. -- Senator John F. Kerry, expanding his new offensive to stir voter anxiety about a second Bush term, told voters in two key swing states yesterday that the president was plotting a ''big January surprise" if he is reelected -- an all-out fight to privatize Social Security.

The Democratic presidential nominee seized on a new magazine article that portrays Bush describing his postelection agenda to a private luncheon for major donors last month and saying: ''I'm going to come out strong after my swearing-in, with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security."

For Kerry, who unsettled some voters last week by saying Bush may reinstitute a draft if reelected, the specter of Social Security cuts offered a second chance to energize his Democratic base during his remarks yesterday to predominantly black, older parishioners at an Ohio church and later before some 10,000 people at a South Florida rally. Kerry accused Bush of wanting to reduce benefits by as much as 45 percent for younger Americans in order to net $2 trillion for his proposed alternative to Social Security -- personal retirement accounts -- an argument Kerry also made in a new television ad and through aides on the Sunday talk shows.

''This may be a good surprise for the wealthiest people and the well-connected in America, but it's a disaster for America's middle class," Kerry said at Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus. ''The president's privatization of Social Security is another way of saying to our seniors that the promise of security is going to be broken. Now once again, this president just seems to be out of touch with the real choices and real concerns of our fellow Americans."

''The last thing seniors need in America is the president's January surprise," Kerry added, a play on the political conceit of an ''October surprise" that boosts a presidential candidate. ''That's a surprise we can all live without, and we intend to."

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, confronted on NBC's ''Meet the Press" with the ''privatizing" quote, did not confirm or dispute it, instead saying that either Bush or Kerry would have to take steps to ensure Social Security's solvency. Shortly after, Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt began contacting reporters to state flatly that Bush never said the word ''privatizing" at the donors' lunch, nor ever would, insisting that it misstates his proposals and is politically loaded.

''The president has never used the word 'privatization' -- ever," said Schmidt, who invoked the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's defense of Bush's ideas on Social Security, including Moynihan's view that the description ''privatizing" was a ''scare word" to mislead voters about retirement accounts.

The article, published in the New York Times Magazine by Ron Suskind -- who has also written a critical book about the Bush administration as seen by former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill -- said the ''privatizing" remark was based on notes and interviews by guests at the Bush lunch. Suskind apparently did not attend the lunch or have a recording of it.   Continued...

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