WESTFIELD, N.J. – President Bush kept pitching his Social Security (search) overhaul Friday, undaunted by Democratic opposition, frayed Republican support and less than enthusiastic backing from the public.
"I'm going to keep telling people we've got a problem until it sinks in, because we've got one," Bush said, underscoring estimates that say Social Security will begin paying out more than it collects in taxes as early as 2018.
Bush's visits to New Jersey and South Bend, Ind., beg The road trip ended a week in which the administration lost momentum on the president's call to revamp the government's 70-year-old retirement system.
The stops Friday were specifically targeted for Reps. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey and Chris Chocola of Indiana, two Republican congressmen who are taking heat on the issue.
Ferguson, who has not taken a position on the private accounts Bush wants, introduced the president, saying only that Bush has launched an "important national conversation." Chocola has said that recent town meetings in his district left him willing to follow Bush's lead, although he talked of the political problems surrounding the issue.
To counter Bush's nationwide swing, Democratic senators planned their own "fix it, don't nix it" forums in four cities over two days.
The Democratic National Committee (search) was responding with radio advertisements in each market targeting Chocola and Ferguson, who have faced tough races in the past. The ads accuse Bush of wanting to "end Social Security's guaranteed benefits" and tie them to the "ups and downs of the stock market."
"Call Congressman Chocola and tell him to oppose President Bush's risky scheme," one ad says.
Bush rebuffed that criticism in South Bend, Ind.
"If you're relying upon Social Security today, nothing will change. I don't care what the ads say, what the politicians say, you're going to get your check," Bush said, stressing that younger workers need to embrace the private accounts.
Back in Washington, leading Republicans are showed growing skepticism.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., on Thursday said Congress should act this year to confront Social Security's problems, backtracking from earlier comments that action might have to wait. Democrats promptly called Frist a flip-flopper.
There were other signs that Republican support was shaky.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, who will shepherd any legislation, suggested that the controversy around Bush's call for personal retirement accounts was giving Democrats an excuse to ignore the Social Security's serious financial problems.
"Maybe we ought to focus on the solvency and bring people to the table just over what do you do for the solvency," said Grassley, R-Iowa.
Democrats, meanwhile, stood united in opposition to any measure that included the accounts, equating them to a partial privatization of Social Security that would come at the expense of traditional benefits and widen the deficit.
"Republicans are talking about a privatization plan that cuts benefits, adds trillions in debt and does nothing to strengthen the program," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "That is unacceptable and the American people are rejecting that approach."
Adding to the Republican woes was a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (search) saying that while the number of people who know about the president's plan has doubled, the number supporting private accounts is tumbling.
Scores of protesters demonstrated near an armory where Bush spoke to a hand-picked audience of supporters. One man waved a red sign that said, "Don't mess SS (Social Security) up too." Michelle Rowland, 64, of Scotch Plains carried a sign that read, "If you want to gamble, Mr. President, go to Atlantic City."
Bush envisions no change for current retirees or workers age 55 and older. Under his plan, however, younger Americans could divert up to 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes into personal accounts in exchange for a reduction in their guaranteed benefit.
Despite Bush's uphill battle on the issue, the White House says it's not changing its message. Bush will continue to tell seniors over 55 that nothing will change for them, but he'll also stress the financial problems the program faces and how personal retirement accounts can be part of a solution.
Some of the president's allies, however, say the White House should tweak its message.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been trying to create a bipartisan deal, has said the administration needs to focus not on the accounts, but the importance of "repairing the safety net."
Perhaps heeding Graham's advice, Bush said that while Social Security has been an important provider for older Americans for decades, "The safety net has got a hole in it and we need to make sure we save that safety net for future generations of Americans to come."