WASHINGTON – From politics to policy, it's campaign season all over again for President Bush. With the memories of last year's swing state campaign still fresh, the president is again winging from state to state, trying to win support for his proposed overhaul of the Social Security (search) system.
He's pressuring lawmakers who are wary of his plan to offer personal investment accounts to younger workers in return for scaled-back guaranteed retirement benefits. And he's doing it in the lawmakers' own backyards.
"I like to get out of Washington," Bush explained to an audience in North Carolina. "I like to talk to people. But I also know that when the people speak, people in the Congress listen. So I'm kind of sharing with you a little bit of my strategy about how to move this issue forward."
Later Thursday, Bush was traveling to Blue Bell, Pa., home state of Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (search), who opposes cuts in promised benefits for future retirees.
But first he visited Raleigh, N.C. to highlight how Social Security could be a winning political issue. The president was appearing with Sen. Elizabeth Dole (search), R-N.C., who helped set up the event but had to miss the event for votes on Capitol Hill.
Whenever Dole's Democratic opponent, Erskine Bowles, criticized her proposal during the campaign, she simply held up a blank sheet of paper to represent his plan. Bowles had nothing, she charged.
A guide distributed by the Senate and House Republican conferences during a retreat last week cited Dole as an example of how lawmakers could support personal accounts and survive their next election.
Bush noted that he also ran on the issue twice and won.
"I believe candidates are rewarded, not punished, for taking on tough issues," he said. "I say that to give assurance to the members of Congress who may be somewhat fearful of taking on the issue."
Still, Bush faces opposition to his plan for personal accounts from North Carolina Democrats. Rep. Bob Etheridge (search) issued a statement admonishing the president for offering a "partisan political marketing ploy" that doesn't fix the problem and only creates massive costs and huge benefit cuts.
Outside the Raleigh event, there were protesters waving commercially made signs that read: "Hands off my Social Security."
Bush has several goals at his Social Security events. He tries to convince people that the problem is urgent, while trying to reassure people over 55 that they will get their promised benefits. And he tries to get people to act by contacting their elected officials.
In a visit to the Commerce Department on Wednesday, the president said younger workers "ought to be asking the members of the Congress and the president of the United States, `What are you going to do to fix the problem?'"
Those who have been targeted by Bush's visits say so far they aren't feeling the heat. Last week, Bush tried to woo the backing of several Democratic lawmakers in a tour of five states that he won last fall.
But staff for several of those senators said they haven't seen any increase in calls of support for Bush's ideas. Bryan Gulley, spokesman for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, said they've seen the opposite - more people have been calling in against private accounts, perhaps because of newspaper ads opposing his plan that the AARP (search) bought to coincide with Bush's visits.
Chris Thorne, spokesman for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said there hadn't been any upswing in calls to the senator's office, although there was some response to Bush's visit - editorials in some North Dakota newspapers praised Conrad for standing firm against the president.