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Bush sells Social Security plan at town-hall meetings

RALEIGH, N.C.—President Bush took his campaign to overhaul Social Security back on the road Thursday, hoping to convince folks such as Harry Eberly that changes can be made in the popular retirement program without hurting it.

At stops here and the Philadelphia suburb of Blue Bell, Pa., Bush used orchestrated town-hall meetings to try to explain his proposal in easily digestible terms, using people and their circumstances to illustrate what he sees as his plan's virtues.

Eberly, 80, a soon-to-retire community-service worker, came to the Raleigh event supporting Bush but skeptical of his plan to create private investment accounts financed by wage-tax revenues diverted from Social Security.

"I like what I hear, but I question whether or not it's satisfactory," Eberly said. "It's not that well defined, and I don't think it has the support to be successful."

Such comments indicate the battle Bush faces. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released this week found that 50 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's approach to Social Security, while 44 percent approve.

Trying to rally public opinion, Bush is mounting town-hall meetings around the country on a tour that began last week with a two-day, five-state swing.

Crowds at the events are handpicked and friendly. In Raleigh, tickets were given out through the offices of North Carolina's two Republican senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr.

Arguing that Social Security will run into trouble as soon as 2018, Bush wants to allow workers born since 1950 to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

He avoided specifics Thursday, but promised that now-retired people and workers born before 1950 wouldn't have their benefits cut. To cover benefit costs as workers divert wage taxes into private accounts, Bush would borrow an estimated $2 trillion over the first decade of his plan's full operation.

Bush conceded that private accounts wouldn't fix Social Security's long-term solvency problem, in which rising costs as baby boomers retire will exceed wage-tax income for the system. He rejects raising taxes to solve the problem, but says all other options are on the table, and he expects to work with Congress to flesh out a rescue plan. The only options left are benefit cuts and/or raising the income limit—now $90,000—subject to the wage tax.

"We're all in this together," Bush said. "We're . . . going to be blamed together or we're going to be praised together."

It became clear how unfinished Bush's proposal remains when one man, who said his father died in 2001, asked Thursday what would happen if his family were forced to pull money out of the private account for an emergency.

" ... Frankly, we haven't got the emergency withdrawal aspects of the personal account," Bush said. "The main principle is not to let people withdraw money ... from the personal account because it needs to be used for retirement."

Bush's first mention of private accounts generated only mild applause, possibly reflecting concerns like Eberly's about switching from guaranteed benefits to the uncertainties of the stock market.

"The investment industry is lined with people who are fast-buck artists," Eberly said.

Another spectator, Mike Whitehead, said he was totally behind Bush's proposal and the concept of an ownership society.

"I have much more confidence looking out for my future," said Whitehead, 49, a real-estate developer from Raleigh. "It's under my control. The benefits will be there, but I'm not relying on Social Security as a significant portion of my retirement."

Julius Smith, 35, agreed; he too is a Raleigh real-estate developer.

"The private accounts bring increased returns that the stock market provides," Smith said.

As Bush pressed his case at Raleigh's BTI Center for the Performing Arts, about 100 protesters stood across the street behind barricades, chanting: "No discussion without dissent" and blasting his plan.

"I don't agree with privatization at all. You can look at Chile and Great Britain and see that it doesn't work," said Kyle Krayer, 21, an international-studies senior at North Carolina State University. "Besides, the entire point of Social Security was when the stock market crashed, it was a way of protecting people."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-SOCIAL

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