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In Kentucky, Bush's Social Security sales job gets a mixed response

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—The barricades are down, the motorcade is gone, the traffic gridlock is over and Air Force One has roared off into the sunset.

President Bush rolled in and out of here Thursday as part of his administration's 60-events-in-60-days Social Security tour, hoping to sell his vision of a transformed national retirement system to a skeptical Kentucky public.

He spoke for less than an hour to a mostly friendly crowd of 2,000 in a performing-arts center, touting his idea of allowing citizens to divert part of their Social Security taxes into new private investment accounts.

Bush is banking heavily on town-hall meetings like this to rescue his top second-term domestic priority. Polls show the public at large is increasingly skeptical of his proposal, but what about people in Louisville after Bush made his spiel in person? The answer appears mixed.

Just by showing up, Bush generated extensive—and mostly positive—local media coverage for his Social Security agenda. That was no small feat at a time when this basketball-crazed city is gripped by NCAA March Madness and fascinated by the latest turns in a bizarre, four-year-old case involving an Indiana state trooper and the murder of his family.

Media attention is one thing, however, and impact on individuals another. The day before Bush arrived, many Louisville residents who were asked at random said they didn't even know he was coming. Those who attended had to get tickets through local Republican officials. Most who paid attention said his short talk either reaffirmed what they felt about his plan or raised more questions than it answered.

"It certainly brought a lot of attention to it," said Paul Weber, a University of Louisville political science professor. "Will it fire up his supporters? Yes. Will it change minds? I don't think so."

Bush faces a daunting task in selling his plan in Kentucky, like the rest of the country. A Bluegrass poll last month revealed that 49 percent of Kentuckians disapprove of Bush's handling of Social Security. Forty-two percent said Social Security works well, 32 percent said the system needs major changes and 17 percent said it needs an overhaul.

Some people, such as Travis Berkley, said they hadn't focused on Social Security until Bush's visit.

"Social Security isn't an everyday topic at work. We pretend it doesn't even exist," said Berkley, a 23-year-old bank credit manager.

But after sitting in the second row at the town hall and shaking Bush's hand afterward, Berkeley said the event was an eye-opener that made him think.

"He presented one possibility and said other people have brought stuff to the table. I want to hear more," he said. "I want to see it all on paper."

Bush supporters used his visit to educate the uninitiated and rev up interest among the Republican base. The local Republican Party held a public meeting the night before that attracted press attention.

The Spalding Group, a firm that makes campaign materials exclusively for Republicans, took out a full-page ad in The Louisville Courier-Journal the day of Bush's visit. It offered free yard signs and bumper stickers that read "Act Now, Strengthen Social Security, Support President Bush!" to anyone wanting one.

Not to be outdone, Louisville's Democratic Party held its own public Social Security meeting Wednesday night to stoke their base against Bush's plan.

And AARP, the influential lobby for Americans 50 and older, took out a full-page ad in Thursday's Courier-Journal with a mock-up of a Social Security card that read "IF YOU have a problem with the sink, YOU DON'T tear down the entire house." AARP opposes Bush's plan.

On Thursday, local TV stations broke into their regular programming to carry Bush's event live.

On Friday, the Courier-Journal featured several stories on the event, focusing on Bush's message, the local people involved and protests outside.

But for all the attention, few if any Louisville media outlets pointed out that Bush's call for private accounts would do nothing to bring Social Security closer to fiscal solvency.

"Local media tends to be relatively non-critical and simply covers the White House message because they are dazzled by a White House visit," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who analyzes the media. "It's like having the White House press release handed to all the readers and viewers, with the added credibility of an independent news organization."

The Courier-Journal did publish an article Friday that fact-checked some of Bush's remarks. It noted that the White House couldn't provide calculations to back up the president's claim that a worker who makes $35,000 over a lifetime and puts 4 percent of his or her Social Security payroll tax into a private investment account would receive $250,000 under his plan.

But most coverage was sympathetic. WHAS-TV, Louisville's ABC affiliate, referred viewers Thursday to the station's Web site, where viewers could click one link to the White House Web site's Social Security page, which echoes Bush's live message. Another link goes to a 1998 study by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports Bush's plan.

Robb Jarrell, a career counselor at a Louisville high school, said he watched Bush's event on television with his students and was unconvinced by Bush's argument for private accounts.

"I wasn't impressed. It was really just a pep rally," said Jarrell, 48. "I personally don't like him or trust him."

But Jarrell said he believes Bush probably swayed other Kentuckians because "he does a good job in convincing people and he's personable."

Jon Carlson, a 40-year-old health care worker, watched the meeting and already favored private accounts. He wondered how many Kentuckians were paying attention to Bush, since the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats were playing in televised basketball tournaments.

"President Bush picked a bad time. Basketball is No. 1 now," Carlson said.

Though Carlson says he's "100 percent behind" personal accounts, he would have liked to hear Bush talk more about a willingness to compromise.

"Otherwise, it ain't going to get done," he said.

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The Bluegrass Poll cited above was taken of 801 randomly selected Kentuckians from February 3-9. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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

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

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