President Bush's Medicare prescription drug law has not gone over well with many of America's seniors. Too little, too late, they complain in polls and interviews. Confusing. Complicated. A boondoggle for the drug companies.
But if Bush appears to be encountering difficulty wooing older voters this year, it is not just because of Medicare. The 60-plus crowd is also upset about the war in Iraq, worried about the ballooning deficit, put off by Bush's style.
No group in American politics commands the sort of attention lavished on senior citizens. Yet in dozens of interviews at the annual AARP convention here and in several national surveys, retirees signaled that they have much more on their agenda.
"It was wrong to go into Iraq, arrogant," said James Politis, 80. "The health care situation stinks. Women's rights -- Bush is absolutely wrong on. And the religious situation; he's trying to force his beliefs on us."
Though they sometimes cancel out each other's votes, this year Politis and his wife agreed and cast absentee ballots in Illinois for Democrat John F. Kerry.
"I can't stand Bush," Lorraine Politis said. ". . . We don't like automatic weapons; Iraq was a mistake."
For Linda Sheridan of El Paso, concern over the deficit prompted her to support Kerry. "I want to get us back to a balanced budget," she said Thursday after Kerry addressed several thousand members of the nation's largest lobbying group for people older than 50. "It took so long to get it, and now, four short years later, we're in the biggest deficit since the '30s."
To be sure, the group attending the AARP convention was not a scientific sample, and Bush had his fans in the Sands Expo Convention Center here. Mary Lynn Broughman of Illinois intends to vote for Bush because security is her top priority.
"I'm really worried about terrorism, and I want to see my grandchildren grow up in a safe world," she said. "We may not have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the ability was there."
But for a president who delivered more than $500 billion in drug and health benefits to people older than 65 -- with the backing of AARP's leadership -- Bush is not enjoying a visible advantage with the beneficiaries of that largess.
In the most comprehensive survey of seniors, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found half were dissatisfied or angry with the new law, less than one-third expect it will affect them personally, and 79 percent said they support changes permitting drug purchases from other countries such as Canada and giving the government authority to negotiate for bulk discounts, two proposals Kerry backs.
"Seniors were expecting more," Kaiser foundation president Drew E. Altman said. "They think the benefit should be more generous and the law is too complex."
Joyce Gyurina, an Illinois woman who described herself as "Medicare age," is upset that the new law prohibits the federal government for negotiating with pharmaceutical makers for lower, bulk prices. "Some drug companies have already boosted their prices," she said, referring to reports that the cost of drugs was raised to offset discounts provided with the new card.
Yet Gyurina remains undecided; only 27 percent of the 1,000 retirees surveyed by Kaiser in July said the law would affect their choice for president.
"When you turn 65, you don't become a single-issue voter," said Daniel Perry, who is with the Alliance for Aging Research. Passage of the drug benefit, he said, may not be the boon Republicans had hoped. "It wouldn't be the first time the politicians had misread a voting group."
When it comes to older voters, myths abound. It is not true that they are growing more Republican. After supporting GOP presidential nominees in 1980, 1984 and 1988, seniors swung into the Democratic column for the next three elections, including giving Al Gore a slight edge over Bush four years ago.
Nor are seniors the largest voting block. Voters between the ages of 25 and 44 were the dominant group in 2000, representing 37 percent of the total vote that year. And contrary to conventional wisdom, older Americans tend to vote along the same lines as the rest of the population.
They remain a coveted electoral prize because they register and vote in much greater proportions, meaning even a narrow edge among senior citizens could determine the outcome in a close race.
In the last presidential election, 63 percent of people 55 to 64 voted, and 64 percent older than 65 went to the polls, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. By contrast, 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2000.
Seniors "are the only demographic group other than generic Southerners that increased their rate of participation over the last 40 years," said the committee's director, Curtis Gans. Their influence is especially strong in a half dozen key states, where more than 15 percent of the population is older than 65: Florida, West Virginia, Arkansas, Iowa, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
That helps explain why, with Election Day looming Nov. 2, Kerry and first lady Laura Bush came to the convention here. They were greeted by AARP volunteers sporting red T-shirts that proclaimed: "Ask the candidates: Social Security, Rx costs, health care, long term care."
But these were not the only issues on the minds of those in the audience; many expressed concern about the war in Iraq.
"The war is taking lots of our resources out of this country; it's affecting our jobs, the economy," said Lorenzo Mills, 67, of Rialto, Calif. The Air Force veteran and Kerry supporter said he worries the most about what sort of future his three grown children face and how they will be able to "afford school for their children."
Striking up a conversation as they waited for Laura Bush to arrive, Lois Ricard, 77, and Rose Brown, 59, found they share similar frustrations that Bush "rushed into Iraq without a plan for getting out," as Brown put it. The two African Americans who have lost friends and relatives in previous conflicts said they detect bitterness in the black community that Bush did not fight in the Vietnam War, while Kerry did.
"They both make promises they can't fulfill," Al Nisley, an undecided voter from Nashville, said after watching the final presidential debate here with 1,000 seniors. He is frustrated that on Iraq, "Bush seems to have made up his mind, no matter what," while Kerry's "plan" sounds remarkably similar to Bush's.
"I'm not that tickled with either of them," Nisley said.