AUSTIN - In his proposal to reform Social Security, George W. Bush is considering a plan that would make private investment accounts voluntary and guarantee a minimum benefit level regardless of the market, according to Bush advisers.
Those at or near Social Security age would be unaffected, but younger workers would be able to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market, aides say.
Mr. Bush has long favored private accounts, but he has yet to offer a detailed plan. He will present some ideas next week on the politically sensitive issue, which already is drawing fire from Vice President Al Gore.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gore stepped up his criticism of partially privatizing Social Security, warning that it could jeopardize the long-term solvency of the system.
"It is responsible to make the strength and solvency of Social Security a major national priority. And it is responsible to tell the American people exactly how you propose to do it," Mr. Gore told the New Jersey AFL-CIO.
Demanding details of what he called Mr. Bush's "secret plan to privatize Social Security," Mr. Gore said the governor "just smiles and goes on with the smug assumption that there's no need to share with you the details" of his plan.
Dan Bartlett, a Bush spokesman, fired back Wednesday, accusing Mr. Gore of playing on the fears of older Americans.
"When Governor Bush outlines his framework, people will know how he intends to save Social Security," he said.
The escalating debate underscores what analysts said was a furious battle for voters, who polls show are divided between favoring personal savings accounts and fearing what might happen if the stock market declines.
"Bush is coming up with a fresh, new idea that he hopes will solidify the support of the young without frightening the old too much," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Out of money
Social Security, which is financed with a special tax deducted from workers' paychecks, is expected to run short of cash after the huge baby boom generation begins collecting benefits.
Cutting retirement benefits or raising payroll taxes are possible solutions but politically unpopular.
"This is a quiescent, happy year and most of the issues favor the incumbent party, the Democrats," Mr. Sabato said. "Bush has to take some chances to demonstrate to people why it's time for a change.
"Bush has got to do it on other issues as well, such as health care. Voters want to hear about those issues and he has to come up with an appealing Republican model or he won't win."
By ensuring that older Americans won't be affected, making the plan voluntary and considering a guaranteed "safety net" benefit level, political analysts said Mr. Bush would attempt to blunt Mr. Gore's attacks that partial privatization is too risky.
Mr. Gore wants to give Social Security future government surpluses, which he says will come from the interest savings gained from his plans to pay down the national debt.
He has sought to dissociate himself from a Clinton administration proposal that would have the government, rather than individuals, invest some of those surpluses in the stock market.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gore said his Republican rival has surrounded himself with advisers who have embraced privatization plans that would put the trust fund at risk. He singled out Martin Feldstein, John Goodman and Lawrence Lindsey.
"Gore's going around speaking to senior citizens, trying to scare them," said Mr. Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank based in Dallas.
"None of the proposals in Congress, and nothing that Governor Bush has said, in any way affects the elderly," he said.
Moreover, Mr. Goodman dismissed Mr. Gore's warnings that privatization was dangerous, saying ideas that the governor has under review would guarantee "a minimum benefit" regardless of the performance of the market.
"If you have a funded system, then the government's role is just as a safety net," he said. "Most people are going to save enough to pay their own way, but you'd have the government in a safety-net role."
Some Bush advisers are leaning toward supporting a plan to divert 2 percent to 2.5 percent of the 12.4 percent in Social Security payroll taxes to private accounts.
Mr. Bartlett of the Bush campaign said only that the governor "will work with the Congress as the process unfolds."
In campaign stops, Mr. Bush has presented himself as an advocate of change and characterized Mr. Gore as part of the status quo in Washington.
Mr. Sabato said Mr. Bush's decision to advocate changes in the Social Security system underscores that theme even as it poses political risks at a time when the economy is good and voters appear fairly happy.
"It's funny, because all during his term, President Clinton has said Americans are afraid of change," Mr. Sabato said. "And now it's that very dynamic that may elect his vice president and preserve his legacy."