Target: Voters, not pols - Facing off over Social Security

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Social Security reform is emerging as the biggest marketing brawl in the policy arena in recent years, with ads, grassroots organizing, public relations, media appearances and Web efforts thrown into the fight.

More than a dozen groups are collectively chipping in upward of $25 million, including MoveOn.org, which opposed the Bush re-election and his reform plan, as well as with two that supported President Bush-Progress for America and the Club For Growth-in addition to labor unions, political parties and several policy groups.

"We think Social Security reform is the biggest issue of this Congress and we feel strongly," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, which has traditionally directed its efforts toward electing conservative candidates. "We will use all the resources we have to encourage members to support the President's approach."

Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, was clear that its primary push this year will be to further President Bush's plan for Social Security privatization. "We will [use] tools from talk radio to regional media appearances ... bookings on cable TV, too. We will be using campaign tactics."

All are adopting a strategy of targeting voters rather than politicians with messages about the rightness of their cause, then leaving voters to lobby their representatives or senators. That's a more expensive approach than targeting Washington players directly, but it can also be more powerful-such a strategy was widely credited with defeating President Clinton's health care reform in 1994.

`grassroots'

"We will have a comprehensive effort with town hall meetings and grassroots activities," said Derrick Max, executive director for the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, which appears to be one of the main business group backing President Bush's effort. His group, like several others, is trying to get experts out to local Rotary and Kiwanis meetings and on cable and local TV talk shows to try to get the subject discussed.

Mr. Max said the campaign may be launched under the name Coalition for Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, and that there will be a multi-million dollar effort including advertising. But as with most efforts being planned, advertising may not be the main attack plan.

"What is the value of a 30-second ad when you have [TV] anchors telling [Americans] about [the issue.] We have a story to tell and we are hoping to use as many media as we can."

Last week Progress for America, which last year featured President Bush hugging a girl whose mother was killed in the 9/11 attack, launched the first TV ad in its Social Security effort. The spot segued from pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing in Social Security to pictures of President Bush. "It took courage to support Social Security. It will take courage and leadership to protect it," said the voice-over, which urges voters to call their congressmen and senators.

On the opposing side, AARP began running full-page print ads in newspapers around the country in a $5 million campaign warning about the changes. Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin, Texas, handles AARP.

The primary emphasis is being put on outreach through events, newsletters, phone calls, and media appearances. "We are doing a lot of local media with op eds in smaller media," said Khris Bershers, director-media services for the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports reform. "We believe the best way for a congressman to hear your message is to get it in his local newspaper."

The foundation has mounted an effort to do town hall meetings through the Internet using the platform of meetup.com. It held 72 events this month already and 89 in December and has 25,000 members registered on the Web site.

AARP also says advertising is only a small portion of its focus. "Our whole power in this process is our 35.6 million members and we are reaching out to our members in a big way," said Christine Donohoo, chief communications officer. She said AARP's Web site, its magazines and its newsletters have featured prominent discussion of Social Security, and its staff around the country is hosting forums or speaking at media events.

`a viral effect'

The Coalition for America's Future, comprised of labor unions, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women and disability groups also opposes reform. "We anticipate their constituents are going to make voices heard on Social Security, and we have started setting up meetings between constituents and their members of Congress during the February work period [when Congress members are home]," said Toby Chaudhuri, communications director. "We know that the other side will spend millions of dollars, but we will definitely exploit the tactical resources."

Meanwhile, Freedom Works, headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and working for reform, flew and bused 60 activists to Washington to be part of a panel with President Bush.

"We are hoping to have a viral effect in our membership," said Andrew Porter, a group spokesman. "We are setting up town hall meetings, going to events, hoping to motivate our 700,000 members and conservative activists to call Congressmen and senators. It's extremely targeted at this stage."

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