President Bush and Senator John Kerry exchanged barbs on domestic issues, as the 2004 presidential campaign went into the closing laps Tuesday. With two weeks to go, the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger focused on the politically sensitive matter of the Social Security program.
Iraq and terrorism received less attention than domestic issues in the heated presidential campaign Tuesday. President Bush and Senator Kerry hit on well-worn themes, as they sought votes in key battleground states that could well tip the election in two weeks.
Social Security -- the program that guarantees retired senior citizens some income -- was at the forefront of the debate. The program threatens to become overburdened, because people born in the late 1940s and 1950s, the so-called baby boom generation, will soon begin to retire in large numbers.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Kerry sought to reinforce his portrayal of his rival as a man bent on dismantling the program, and favoring the wealthy over the middle class. "His four-year spending spree of tax giveaways for millionaires has undermined the hopes of middle-class families, and it has put Social Security on a dangerous road," he said. "Now, he's asking for four more years, so that he can privatize the program, and undo the social compact with our seniors."
At stops in Florida, a state with a large population of retirees, Mr. Bush denied any such intention, and accused Mr. Kerry of fear-mongering. "Instead of articulating a vision or a positive agenda for the future, the senator is relying on a litany of complaints and old-style scare tactics, as proven by his record and a series of contradictions."
But while seeking to reassure retirees that their Social Security benefits will continue, he added that the issue must have a fresh approach. He reiterated his plan for allowing younger workers to funnel payroll taxes into private accounts. "We must think differently. To strengthen Social Security, we must allow younger workers to save some of their payroll taxes in a personal savings account, a personal savings account they call their own," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Kerry ridiculed that approach. "This is what the president must mean when he talks about his 'ownership society' - when it comes to your retirement, you're on your own. There's really no secret about it. This is his plan."
Senator Kerry was referring to a recent newspaper report that the president would move to privatize the Social Security pension system in his second term. White House officials described the report as inaccurate.
Public opinion polls still show the race to be extremely close.