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In Heartland, a Social Security Battlefield

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page A04

OMAHA, Feb. 4 -- It wasn't long after the White House announced plans to barnstorm five states to tout the president's Social Security proposal that the opposing forces began to mobilize, and Patrick Pannett stepped off an airplane in Nebraska to organize a protest rally.

Pannett is a foot soldier in what promises to be the most contentious domestic policy fight since welfare was restructured. Dispatched by the left-leaning Campaign for America's Future, he helped muster a hardy band of protesters to provide a counterpoint to Bush's pitch Friday morning at the Qwest Center here.

President Bush, explaining his proposal in Omaha, is on a five-state swing. The GOP thinks it can exert pressure on Nebraska's Democratic senator. (Larry Downing -- Reuters)

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Social Security

"This certainly is an issue that won't be conceded," Pannett said between events. "I'm just out here building an ad hoc organization."

Nebraska, one of the reddest of the red states, is an important state in the calculations of the White House and its opponents alike. A state that backed Bush in November by 2 to 1, it has a Democratic senator the Republicans consider vulnerable to persuasion. Four other states and dozens of congressional districts are also being targeted by the White House, Democrats and interest groups engaged in the Social Security debate.

Here, the object of the Republicans' attention is Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

Alone among 44 Democratic senators, Nelson declined to sign a letter this week objecting to Social Security changes that would increase the federal deficit. And alone among seven Democratic senators targeted during Bush's two-day campaign trip, Nelson asked that the senior citizens' lobby AARP not publish its latest ad -- "Thank you, Senator, for protecting Social Security" -- in his home state's papers, said the AARP's policy director, John Rother.

Nelson took a front-row seat Friday to hear Bush praise him as someone "willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America." But he has said that the president has left important questions unanswered. He wants to hear more before he decides.

Both sides are giving him plenty to listen to. In January, AARP ran a series of newspaper ads around the country questioning the wisdom of the personal investment accounts proposed by the president. The campaign helped generate 550 calls and 290 letters to Nelson's office by the end of last week. Opponents of Bush's proposals swamped supporters by 9 to 1.

Senate Democrats mobilized after Bush made Social Security restructuring the domestic centerpiece of his State of the Union address and announced that he would make a five-state tour this week. But Nelson decided he was not ready to speak out, which was the subject of considerable debate at a strategy session in the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Monday. Top advisers to each of the seven targeted senators gathered there to plan their response.

Tim Becker, Nelson's chief of staff, told the group that his boss was not ready to decide.

"We were refusing to take any position until the president offered a plan," explained David DiMartino, Nelson's spokesman, who attended the meeting. "Some people thought that was a good idea. Some thought it was a bad idea. There was a discussion about whether it was wise to let the president set the debate."

Meanwhile, Pannett had flown to Nebraska from Washington, assigned to drum up publicity and a vocal crowd to blunt the president's message. He worked with the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Retired Americans and the Fair Taxes Coalition of Nebraska, among other groups. A local politician agreed to speak, as did Ken Mass, president of the Nebraska AFL-CIO.

Once Pannett had fixed a time for the protest, the advocacy group MoveOn.org did its part to mobilize support. At 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, shortly before Bush began his address to a joint session of Congress, MoveOn's Washington director, Tom Mattzie, sent an e-mail to its 18,034 Nebraska members, urging them to show up.

The White House had an easier time, given Bush's popularity in Nebraska and the relative rarity of a presidential visit. For days, the local newspapers and television stations were filled with stories about the visit, what he would say and how to get tickets -- which turned out to be much easier for Republicans than for Democrats.

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