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Americans wary as Bush continues push for Social Security changes

TAMPA, Fla.—President Bush may ultimately prevail in his effort to overhaul Social Security, but his two-day road trip to promote the idea underscored just how hard it will be.

The hearty applause that greeted Bush at every stop on his five-state tour Thursday and Friday was mingled with quiet murmurings of unease about his intention to revamp a program that's become an integral part of American life. Even the president's supporters acknowledged that he has a long way to go in his effort to whip up public support for personal investment accounts within Social Security.

"I think most people are afraid of change," said Bruce Beaudry, a high school teacher who took his students to see Bush at a stop Thursday evening in Great Falls, Mont. "He's lobbying for change, and that's what it's going to take."

Day two of the president's five-state tour started Friday morning in Nebraska, where he told several thousand people in Omaha's Qwest Center that Social Security would be "flat bust" by mid-century. In fact, official projections indicate that payroll taxes will cover about 73 percent of promised benefits by that point.

Marguerite McGill, 60, left the event unconvinced that Bush can fix the problem. She was particularly concerned about what would happen to traditional Social Security if payroll taxes were diverted to private accounts.

"I agree it needs to be addressed," McGill said, "but I'm not sure he's got all the answers. I hope he keeps an open mind. I hope Congress keeps an open mind, too."

The president has said the government would borrow money to avoid any disruption in benefits to current recipients. At the same time, his senior aides concede that his proposed investment accounts would do nothing to fix Social Security's long-term solvency, and he rules out hikes in the payroll tax to fix that. Bush has promised to work with Congress on finding solutions, but all remaining options would require sacrifice—either cuts in future benefits, exposing more income to the payroll tax or both.

"I fully recognize a personal retirement account is not the only thing needed to solve Social Security permanently," the president acknowledged Friday. "But it's a part of the solution."

Bush ended his day in Tampa, Fla., the state with the largest proportion of seniors in the nation, after a stop in Little Rock, Ark. He went to North Dakota and Montana on Thursday.

Flanked by charts illustrating what he said is Social Security's "red ink," Bush urged the "youngsters" in the Tampa audience to lobby their congressmen to change the system.

"If I were a youngster, I'd be knocking on your members' doors to say, `What are you going to do about it?''' Bush said.

Most of the president's events were carefully scripted, and the audiences were packed with supporters. In Fargo, N.D., local organizers came up with a list of residents who were banned from the event, including people who'd criticized the president in letters to the Fargo newspaper.

Four years ago, Bush used similar campaign-style rallies to build support for tax cuts. But selling tax reductions was easy compared with the task at hand.

This time, the president is trying to explain a complex proposal to change the most popular federal program in history. While he ties his proposed change to Social Security's future funding shortfall, his proposal wouldn't fix it. To prevail, he'll have to persuade Americans to revamp a trusted program that most of them think has served them well for nearly 70 years.

Beaudry, the Montana teacher, said he supported Bush on Social Security, but his support was tempered by doubts.

"I'm pretty much in agreement with what he's trying to do," he said. "I don't know whether it's going to be right or wrong, but somebody's got to try something."

Older Americans tended to be the most skeptical. The president has worked hard to convince retirees that they would see no change in their promised benefits if Congress approves his plan for younger workers, but doubts remain.

Montana farmer Donald Dyrud, who is semi-retired, said he worried that diverting payroll taxes to private accounts would leave less money for traditional Social Security.

"I guess I've got mixed feelings on it," Dyrud said after listening to Bush in Great Falls. "If they put it into private accounts, there's going to be a lot less for government Social Security."

JoAnn Strege, a 70-year-old retiree from Wahpeton, N.D., said many of her friends and neighbors had similar concerns. She was reassured after listening to the president in Fargo.

"If they could all hear him explain it, I think they'd feel better about it," she said. "I guess I didn't understand it before I came, and I feel like I do now."

Though audiences at Bush's events were screened, doubts about his plans cropped up anyway.

A woman in Montana wanted to know whether her mentally disabled daughter would lose her benefits. Bush said no. A small-business owner wondered if she would be responsible for overseeing her employees' investment accounts. The president assured her she wouldn't.

A woman in Tampa asked how the private accounts would fix "the red problem," referring to Bush's charts. Bush started explaining, then told the woman, "I'll keep working on it" when he saw that his explanation wasn't entirely clear.

Bush, who intends to spend a good part of the next several weeks focused on Social Security, appears to be under no illusion about the difficulty he faces. Democrats are almost solidly aligned against his plan, and many Republicans are wary of it.

"It doesn't matter how hard the issue is," the president told the crowd in Omaha. "As a matter of fact, the harder the issue, the bigger the challenge, and the more exciting it's going to be when we get the job done."

He said Social Security's reputation as the "third rail of politics" will be eroded by younger workers who don't think the system will be there when they retire.

"That's what's changed in the debate," Bush said in Tampa as one high-schooler stood to tell Bush that he feared for his financial future. "That's what gives me confidence that people who are elected will be rewarded, not punished, for taking this up. Because there are thousands like him who are saying, `I don't think I'm ever going to see anything and what are you going to do about it.'''

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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