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Skepticism of Bush's Social Security Plan Is Growing

But after nearly a dozen interviews with middle-aged voters, it appears Donnelly's optimism is not widely shared.

"If you're my age, it isn't going to make much difference really," said Mark Kaufman, 52, a rancher and farmer in Nebraska's panhandle. "I can't get all that excited."

Kathy Remenar, 46, would be past retirement age by the time she could contribute the maximum annual amount. (Steven Simpkins For The Washington Post)

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"It won't add up to much," agreed John Hall, 50, a small-business man in Lubbock, Tex., and a strong supporter of the president. "But for my daughter, it could be a tremendous amount. She's 19 years old, and for her, the future of the Social Security system is not too bright."

Indeed, the White House is pinning its political hopes on younger voters such as Hall's daughter. They tend to be deeply ambivalent about the future of Social Security and blessed with enough time until retirement to build up sizable accounts.

In this month's poll, 68 percent of adults 18 to 29 years old said they support investing some Social Security contributions in the stock market. That support falls with the respondents' age, to 60 percent among those 40 to 49, 53 percent among those 50 to 64, and 37 percent among those 65 and older.

But young workers present their own political problems. For one thing, they tend to be less politically involved. Only 38 percent of young respondents say they know much about Bush's Social Security proposal, well below the levels seen among middle-aged and elderly respondents.

At 32, Kathy Lavigne of Wayzata, Minn., said she thinks she supports the president's Social Security plans. But, she conceded, she cannot be sure.

"Honestly, I've discussed it with my business partner here or there, but I'm not watching it too closely," the insurance saleswoman said.

If she were moved to call her representative in Congress, she would have a little problem. She does not know her congressman's name.

If it were up to Ray Waters, a 32-year-old construction sales representative in Kansas, he would keep all of his Social Security taxes in a private account, but absent that, he strongly backs Bush's proposal. "I guess it comes down to it's my money," he said.

But though his congressman, Rep. Dennis Moore, is a perennial Republican target, Waters is not clamoring for a bullhorn to pressure the state's only Democrat in Congress.

"I don't get to camp out in front of Fox News as much as I would like to," he said. "Between work and a little boy and a baby, there's not a whole lot of time for politics."

Finally, younger workers may support the idea of private accounts, but they also tend to oppose Bush. Democratic candidate John F. Kerry claimed 54 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old vote in November, the only age bracket he carried. And distrust of the president is lingering among even some young workers inclined to support investing part of their Social Security contribution. Only 40 percent of these younger workers say they support Bush's Social Security proposal.

"I'm not a big fan of Bush, not at all," said Michelle Hinson, 31, of Morgan Hill, Calif., just south of San Jose. But she grudgingly says she likes the idea of personal accounts. "If I think it's a good idea, then I'm willing to listen and hear what's going on. But for the most part, I don't agree with anything he's doing."

If young voters tend to be apathetic or ambivalent, the elderly are anything but. GOP strategists are convinced Republican politicians must emphasize over and over that anyone older than 55 will not be affected by the plan. By exempting those in or near retirement from participation in the accounts or any benefit reductions, Bush hopes to neutralize opposition from the most vocal and reliable voting bloc.

But the strategy may backfire, homemaker Smorodin said, noting that her mother has grown incensed about the issue. By and large, the elderly do understand the president has promised not to touch their Social Security checks, according to polling.

But that is not relevant to their political opposition, Smorodin said, noting that older people also worry that pension benefit cuts will hurt their children and grandchildren.

At 69, Gene Wallace knows the White House's proposal would have no impact on his Social Security check, but if Bush believes that will silence the Republican mayor of Coldwater, Mich., Wallace grumbled, "he's all wet."

"I'm a parent as well as a grandparent. Somewhere along the line, they are going to be eligible for retirement assistance," he said, with all the energy he could muster three weeks after open-heart surgery. "It's everybody's concern what happens to this country."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

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