President Bush on Monday accused John Kerry of "shameless scare tactics" by suggesting that the president would jeopardize Social Security (search) for older Americans.
"He's trying to scare our seniors. It is wrong to try to scare people going into the polls," Bush, in an Associated Press interview aboard Air Force One, said of Kerry.
The Republican incumbent said Kerry's charges were just "old-style politics."
Kerry, who was in Florida Monday, had decided to break down the president's plans for Social Security, arguing that the president was planning a "January surprise."
In the first month of 2005, Kerry said Sunday, Bush, if still president, would unleash his plans to "privatize" Social Security.
The Massachusetts senator called the idea a boon for the rich and a boondoggle for the middle class.
Campaigning at services at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church (search) in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday, Kerry warned parishioners that Bush would hurt seniors by privatizing Social Security.
"Higher gas costs, with family budgets that are already stretched to the limit — you know what I am talking about," the senator said.
"The last thing seniors need in America is the president's January surprise. That's a surprise we can all live without," he told the mostly African-American congregation.
In a written statement, the Massachusetts senator added:
"This might be a good surprise for the wealthy and well-connected, but it's a disaster for America's middle class. The president's privatization plan for Social Security is another way of saying to our seniors that the promise of security will be broken."
Kerry based his remarks on a report in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in which Bush was quoted as saying to a meeting of major contributors: "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing-in with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security."
Bush's plan to allow personal savings accounts is nothing new, but Democrats say the "January surprise" would cause economic hardship for seniors, who could lose 30 to 45 percent of their benefits.
The Bush campaign was quick to call the newspaper quotation a "total fabrication" by Times reporter Ron Suskind, whom Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (search) said was "a registered Democrat."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said the "January surprise" issue showed that Kerry would "do anything for political gain."
"Today, we saw another example of Kerry's willingness to say anything as he took a false attack on the president as an opportunity to scare America's seniors," Schmidt said.
Suskind has been the conduit of embarrassing quotations from the Bush administration before.
An article by Suskind in the Jan. 2003 issue of Esquire magazine quoted former Faith-Based Initiatives office chief John DiIulio, who had quit the job in Aug. 2001, as saying some administration policies wouldn't work.
A year later, Suskind published "The Price of Loyalty," in which former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill told of his time working in the White House.
The Bush-Cheney '04 campaign put out a press release describing Suskind as inaccurate, destructive and antagonistic, and a reporter whose work was "largely based on anonymous sources and second-hand reports."
It also accused Suskind of not taking enough written notes and not using any electronic equipment to verify statements.
The Bush team said that "privatization" and allowing younger workers to invest their Social Security payments into various stock and bond options were not the same thing, and that the president had already promised seniors that their benefits would not be affected by efforts to perpetuate the program.
It added that the Kerry camp was using semantics designed to scare senior citizens.
Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter had no comment on whether the campaign could independently verify the Bush quotations, but instead argued that the quotations were proof that the president planned to privatize Social Security and gut entitlements.
In an afternoon conference call, Kerry adviser Bob Shrum said that Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman did nothing to dispute the claims during their co-interview on "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning.
Instead, Mehlman went after Kerry's plan to help Social Security.
"The real cost is what John Kerry would do, which is to do nothing, which is $10 billion — $10 trillion — excuse me ... in costs," he said.
FOX News' Jim Angle and Carl Cameron contributed to this report.