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CAMPAIGN 2000

Social Security's Future a 'Question of Values'

Politics: In a bid to fire up voters, Gore attacks Bush's proposal for the U.S. retirement program.

October 22, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Raising the image of an era when elderly indigents were sent to county poorhouses, Vice President Al Gore presented the political debate over Social Security on Saturday as one of values, as his campaign attempted to fan concerns about George W. Bush's plans for the retirement program.

Gore, campaigning in Louisiana and then Pennsylvania, two battleground states, sought to instill passion for his cause among core Democratic voters. To fire up that passion--and drive voters to the polls--he attacked Bush's plan to let taxpayers divert part of their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts.

"It's not only a question of arithmetic, it's a question of values," he said, reaching beyond the financial concerns he had raised last week when he said Bush's approach would jeopardize the retirement plan's solvency. "Keeping Social Security sound and vital . . . is a question about who we are."

"Years ago," he said to a gathering of mostly African American church and community leaders in New Orleans, "there were county poorhouses" to which older people retreated if they lacked resources of their own or family support. He did not suggest poorhouses would return, but he said people should not take the benefits of Social Security for granted.

With barely two weeks until the Nov. 7 election, Gore's campaign is focusing on dual tasks: watering the seeds of doubt he has tried to plant about Bush and his program, particularly among undecided voters, and trying to create enthusiasm for Gore's candidacy to increase voter turnout.

To the first point, Gore criticized a Bush plan to lessen the U.S. peacekeeping role in the Balkans, shifting the task entirely to European countries. Gore said the plan shows a lack of judgment and a misreading of history.

To the second point, turnout, Gore devoted himself enthusiastically, almost giddily, at a rally in a New Orleans park Friday night along the banks of the Mississippi River.

On a stage decorated with two colorful models of oversize fish, he said in a voice that dissolved into a growl, his accent and rhetoric reaching deep into his Southern roots: "You see those fish here? I came here to fish for votes. I came here to ask for your support. Are you with me?

"I ask you to give me your hearts, give me your passion, give me your commitments for the next 18 days."

On Saturday, Gore called the race the closest since 1960, "when John Kennedy won the presidency by a margin of one vote per precinct." That is one of the most oft-repeated pitches in neck-and-neck contests.

Almost pleading with the several dozen people gathered in a hotel meeting room, he said that when they address parishioners and others they should "tell them the facts, but give them the spirit. Tell them it is a myth that it doesn't make any difference" who wins the election.

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) said to the community group in New Orleans: "The same thing happens every time. It comes down to turnout. We have a dead-even race in Louisiana."

Leading the pitch for Gore, the House member said disparagingly of the vice president's opponent: "We got a guy on television in the person of George Bush who looks pretty good. He talks pretty nice, as they say in Texas." Even so, the only reason some people think Bush won the recent presidential debates, he said, was because expectations for him were so low.

"Now, our guy has a higher bar, and he should have a higher bar because he has a lot going for him," Jefferson said.

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial emphasized the role the state could play as each side tries to eke out the 270 electoral votes needed to win. "We know the vice president comes [to New Orleans] because he likes to eat and he likes to dance," the mayor said.

But he said the real reason for the visit was the state's nine electoral votes. Gore campaign aides say the state, which President Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, is a tough but winnable target; Republicans have shown increasing strength there. Other veteran Democrats question the campaign's optimistic assessment.

In any case, Gore was also drawn to New Orleans on Friday night by a pair of Democratic National Committee fund-raisers that officials said collected $1 million.

Gore's aides insist that the questions they are raising about Social Security are beginning to pay off. The campaign says that Bush's proposal to allow individuals to invest some of the Social Security trust fund in stocks and bonds will jeopardize retirement checks by tying up $1 trillion needed to keep money flowing to current beneficiaries.

"This is a very big issue with voters," said Gore strategist Tad Devine. He said that in recent days, internal Gore campaign polls and focus groups have shown the issue to be the voters' No. 1 concern about the Texas governor.

Bush's camp, meanwhile, says the focus on Social Security won't work.

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