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As congressional candidates and party committees trade blows over so-called Social Security privatization - and who allegedly favors it - a number of outside groups are jumping into the election-year fray.
One business-backed coalition hopes to influence the Social Security debate with a multi-million-dollar ad campaign in 20 competitive congressional races.
Derrick Max, executive director of the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, also known as COMPASS, said his nonpartisan group has "about $6 [million] to $8 million in the pipeline" for ads that promote Social Security "modernization."
COMPASS' membership includes the Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers and Citizens for a Sound Economy. The group has sent out two mailers and deployed grassroots organizers and will begin airing ads in October in 20 unannounced districts.
Max said the ads would not mention a candidate's name but would constructively promote the idea of individual accounts.
"Republicans, some of them want to push it off the table," Max said. Of Democrats, he said: "I've seen ads that say [GOP opponents] are anti-senior. Neither seems to be a good public-policy debate."
House Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have declared they will make Social Security privatization a key issue this fall. House Republicans have countered by polling and researching responses to the attacks.
Saying the ad misrepresented the voting record of GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the National Republican Congressional Committee successfully persuaded West Virginia broadcasters to pull DCCC ads.
National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare's Executive Vice President Max Richtman said his group opposes privatization and is working to clarify where candidates stand on the issue.
"In some of these races, the definition of 'privatization' has been manipulated by candidates, so you don't know where people are on these issues," Richtman said.
The committee previously backed candidates with independent-expenditure radio campaigns, direct mail and postcards.
The group has liberal leanings, but Richtman said the campaign has endorsed and contributed to Republicans, such as Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, a Democratic target for defeat this cycle.
Campaign for America's Future Co-Director Roger Hickey said his group plans to spend a modest amount compared to other groups, but has asserted its clout this election cycle by challenging candidates to sign a pledge to oppose "privatizing Social Security, partially or totally."
Hickey, whose campaign includes organized labor and civil rights groups, said some candidates and organizations have muddied the definition of "privatization."
In the New Jersey Senate race, he said GOP businessman Doug Forrester has signed a pledge with "wiggle room" on the issue to blunt criticism by Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli. "He didn't sign our pledge, but he cooked up his own pledge," Hickey said.
Andrew Biggs, a Social Security analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, said privatization was a "catch-all" term used at Cato but never referred to specific legislation. Once Democrats criticized it, Republicans looked for other terminology to describe proposals that divert a portion of an employee's payroll tax to personal accounts.
"The reason you had the switch is that the opponents of reform, generally the Democrats, said that privatization was shutting down the system," Biggs said.
Jim Martin, president of the conservative-leaning 60 Plus Association, said attacks on Republicans over Social Security are a perennial Democratic campaign tactic that is growing less effective.
"It's a lot like crying wolf," Martin said "It's not working like it used to."
AARP, at odds with the 60 Plus Association on the issue, is preparing to run a print ad and a television ad this fall to stir debate in the fall election.
The group opposes changing the Social Security's funding mechanism and contends that diverting even a portion of the payroll tax would create a "carve-out" for Social Security.
AARP Advocacy Director Chris Hansen said the television ad, set to run Oct. 18 in major media markets, would not refer to specific candidates or races.
"We want to have a thoughtful, responsible debate on this subject," Hansen said. "We don't want to scare people, but we do want it on their radar screen."