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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.

Bush aides said that they do not plan to challenge the Times Magazine over the quote, however, saying both the paper and Suskind -- as well as the news media at large -- are sharply biased against Bush's reelection. One campaign official, who declined to be identified, pointed to endorsements of Kerry yesterday by 28 state and national newspapers -- including the Times, The Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the Dayton Daily News -- as a measure of the media's ''dislike" for the incumbent. (At least nine large papers endorsed Bush yesterday, some in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.)

''What's the point of complaining? You have a major news network [CBS] that ran a negative story about the president that was based on forged military documents. You have this article by Suskind, a known Bush hater. What difference does it make to say the president is being treated unfairly?" the campaign adviser said. Kerry senior strategist Robert Shrum, who faced off with Mehlman on NBC yesterday, held a rare conference call with reporters yesterday to mock Mehlman's statement on ''Meet the Press" and the ensuing denials of the Social Security quotation by Schmidt and other Bush aides.

''I think [Mehlman] must've gotten back to the campaign and they told him that he forgot to mislead the American people and they now had to go out and do it," Shrum said.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both took yesterday off from campaigning to rest up for the final 15 days of the race, and for the president to prepare for a ''major" speech in New Jersey today on terrorism, aides said.

Some of them also suggested that the day off doubled as a bit of psychological warfare, a projection of confidence to the Kerry camp, noting that independent public polls since last Wednesday's final presidential debate have suggested a tie or a multipoint Bush lead. A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday has Bush ahead by 3 percentage points among all voters and 8 percentage points among likely voters.

Kerry advisers, however, said their own Democracy Corps Poll indicates Kerry is breaking out of a tie to three points ahead nationally, with a two-point average lead in swing states. Kerry pollster Stan Greenberg said he wanted to confirm the new lead against further polls in coming days, but he tried to dispel the specter of a Bush lead in the public polls. He contended that those results have been ''all over the place" and influenced by a sampling model that does not count two groups of voters -- voters who are newly registered or plan to cast ballots for the first time in years.

After Kerry flew from Ohio to Florida yesterday, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the candidate would spend equal time in both states, which offer a combined 47 electoral votes, as he seeks to break out of his statistical tie with Bush in those states. She said campaign officials were feeling optimistic with nearly two weeks to go and new polls suggesting Kerry is ahead in New Hampshire -- which Bush won in 2000 -- and in strong shape in the Pacific Northwest and Michigan.

Kerry also hopes to spark new ''momentum" in Florida as he continues campaigning in the state today and tomorrow morning, as the public begins early voting for the presidential contest, Cutter said. Kerry will return to Ohio tomorrow and then campaign in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico -- the states on which the Kerry camp sees its hopes rising or falling.

Patrick Healy can be reached at 

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