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Senior Citizen Vote Could be Critical to US Presidential Election - 2004-08-26

America's older citizens are one of the nation's larger and most loyal voting groups. Senior citizens will likely play a key role in deciding the next president of the United States.

America's senior citizens are some of the most active and enthusiastic voters in the country. In the 2000 presidential election 72 percent of registered seniors - 65 to 75 years old - cast ballots.

"Older voters are the most reliable voters in America. They vote out of a sense I think of civic obligation, says John Rother, Policy Director for AARP, a non-partisan, non-profit organization representing 35 million Americans 50 years and older. He says older people are a target for Republican President George Bush and his Democratic Party challenger John Kerry.

"At the presidential level the older vote has genuinely shifted with the majority of votes in the country,? he said. ?So, usually the winner has also won the majority of the Senior vote. So we are not seeing a predominantly Democratic or a predominantly Republican [choice] but rather very much like the rest of the population, people making judgments on the individual candidate and on the issues."

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says both presidential candidates need to reach out to older voters because they live in swing-states where the election may be decided.

?They are some living in the northeast, in the south, they are black, they are hispanic, and they are white,? he said. ?So, this is a population for that reason is a swing constituency. They vote a lot on the basis of the individual candidates as well as on issues, how they fell about the direction of the country. This makes them a really important group."

With the support of older Americans so crucial to the outcome of the election President Bush and Senator Kerry have spent a lot of time looking for support in states with large elderly populations. The candidates have mainly been pushing their health care plans to seniors including affordability and access to the government funded prescription drug programs that are a part of Medicare. It's a issue that matters to Jerriel Drumnond.

"I am concerned about Medicare drugs because I am not getting all of my Medicare because it is too high," he says.

Seventy-year-old Art Palanois enjoys playing Bocce with his friends in this retirement community in Palm Beach, Florida. Many of them worry about the cost of health care coverage and possible cuts in their Social Security or government retirement fund. Art, who retired 10 years ago, says the rising cost of prescription drugs is hurting senior citizens.

"Drugs cost a lot of money and we all have drugs to take,? he says.

So would he like to see lower prices? ?Lower prices, yes sure,? he says.

And, what about the Social Security Program? ?Social Security, as long as they do not touch it I guess it will be all right,? he says.

Surveys suggest elderly voters strongly favor protecting the Social Security retirement fund and improving the nation's educational system. Retirees Phyllis and Jerry Gutwetter say they want more government funding for health care and higher pay for teachers.

"We have worked very hard for all the benefits we are entitled to and we want them for the future generations and we are also interested in education,? she says. ?I know there are a lot of problems with the teachers in Florida and we are both retired teachers and it is a shame that teachers have to go through what they are going through."

Experts say older Americans are typically not just one-issue voters. John Rother says public opinion surveys indicate many senior voters are worried about the war in Iraq and domestic issues.

"They are concerned about the economy and their investments and the fact that their kids are having trouble getting jobs," he says.

Elizabeth Burke, 74, from New York agrees and says more money should be spent on job creation programs.

"There are so many well-paid people who do not have jobs,? she says. ?The jobs are not available. There are people who have been unemployed or who have had to work for less money and it is difficult for them."

Senator Kerry and President Bush have pledged not to cut benefits to older Americans and say they will address their concerns. But first the parties will try to get more senior citizens registered to vote and make sure they get to the polls on election day.