COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct, 17 -- John F. Kerry accused President Bush of having a secret, second-term plan to privatize Social Security starting in January, telling a church audience Sunday that the idea is "a disaster for America's middle class."
Kerry based this allegation on a secondhand, unattributed account of a private speech Bush reportedly delivered to Republican supporters in September. "I am going to come in strong after my swearing in . . . with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security," Bush was quoted as saying in a Sunday New York Times Magazine article that was highly critical of the president. It was written by Ron Suskind, co-author with former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill of a book condemning the Bush administration.
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush, said Kerry lifted a "made-up" quote from a reporter hostile to Bush "to make a false, baseless attack." Schmidt said the president never used the word "privatized" because his plan would not privatize the system.
The president has only endorsed allowing younger Americans to put a small percentage of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts, as a way to extend the life of the federal retirement program. Experts say this would, in essence, partially privatize the system but by no means end the public Social Security system. Neither campaign could supply a recording of the speech, so it was impossible to determine the veracity of Kerry's charge.
Kerry and running mate John Edwards repeated the charge during rallies in Florida, where the concerns of retirees can dominate elections and Social Security is always a top concern.
"This might be a good surprise for the wealthy and well-connected, but it's a disaster for the middle class," Kerry told the congregation at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus. "The president's privatization plan for Social Security is another way of saying to our seniors that the promise of security is going to be broken."
Kerry has complained about Bush lodging negative and unsubstantiated attacks, but in recent weeks the Democrat has made several cutting accusations about the president based on shaky evidence.
After talking to a congressional Democrat who relayed private concerns about a secret Bush plan to call up more troops right after the election, Kerry interrupted a speech in New Mexico last month to say the president was trying to "hide" his intentions to send reservists and National Guard troops to Iraq in November. On Friday, he told the Des Moines Register there is a "great probability" of a draft if Bush is reelected, after hearing from the same member of Congress who warned of a secret call-up, as well as from some Pentagon officials in private and from voters who expressed concerns about a draft.
On Saturday, Kerry blamed Bush for this year's shortage of flu vaccine, saying it could cost lives. The Bush campaign denied each allegation.
Campaigning in Pembroke Pines, Fla., later in the day, Kerry again accused Bush of failing to head off the flu vaccine shortage. He said Bush's failure to maintain adequate vaccine supplies calls into question the president's ability to protect the nation from bioterrorism, which could require the mass distribution of vaccines.
At a packed rally, Kerry implored Floridians to take advantage of state laws allowing them to start voting Monday. "You've got to start voting and you have got to get your friends to go out to vote," he said.
Edwards visited three Florida cities Sunday, where he criticized Bush on Social Security and the flu vaccine, and warned voters of possible dirty tricks by Republicans.
In comments to a black church in Daytona Beach, Edwards said social justice begins with the right to vote. It was his second visit in two days with a largely black audience, a community that is solidly Democratic and still angry about the outcome of the 2000 election, Edwards aides said. "We have to make sure that our voices are heard," Edwards said.
Later he added sharper comments. "The truth is, the more people that vote, the more likely John Kerry will be president, and the Republicans know that," Edwards told a Jacksonville television station in an interview from Gainesville, where he addressed a rally at the University of Florida. "Which is why they would like to keep [voting] sites to a minimum and people participating to a minimum."
Bush and Vice President Cheney did not campaign on Sunday.
Jenkins is traveling with Edwards.