BUSH'S heartland tour takes him back to campaign trouble spots

<br>CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) _ President Bush is taking his plans for coaxing the economy out of a slump and redesigning Social Security to what he calls ``communities of character&#39;&#39; in the nation&#39;s

Monday, August 20th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) _ President Bush is taking his plans for coaxing the economy out of a slump and redesigning Social Security to what he calls ``communities of character'' in the nation's heartland this week.

But Bush's departures from his rugged ranch near this sunbaked central Texas town also seem to serve another purpose _ they put him on the stump in states where he struggled during his election campaign.

The president was flying to Milwaukee on Monday to attend the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention and tour a Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant. On Tuesday, he plans to use an appearance at a high school in Independence, Mo., to tout his fiscal priorities, including Medicare, Social Security and an expected budget surplus.

Bush lost in Wisconsin and narrowly won Missouri in 2000. He said last week he would take his messages to America's ``communities of character.''

``It's somewhat sly, but it looks like Bush is doing some early campaigning for 2004,'' said James Tyson-Shelding, a political analyst in Fort Worth, Texas. ``He's heading to states that he probably feels he should have won or almost lost ... places where there is a substantial Republican population but his message didn't take root.''

Bush's staff has closely guarded what his specific messages will be, but the administration has been moving forward on plans for both Social Security and Medicare

To help shore up funding for Social Security, the president has proposed letting younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. He recently created a commission to devise a plan, recommend how to pay for it and report to him in the fall.

The social program is expected to face shortfalls when the baby-boom generation starts retiring in the coming decade and fewer workers pay into the system.

Bush is also expected to talk about an expected budget surplus. On Wednesday, the White House's Office of Budget Management is expected to release figures on how much money is left over.

Political analysts say Bush is clearly on the campaign trail.

``It's a two-birds-with-one-stone situation,'' said Patrick Delraj, a political science professor at the University of California. ``He's laying groundwork to be in a stronger position next time around.''

Last week, the president went to New Mexico, a state he lost to Democrat Al Gore only after a recount determined he was 400 votes behind.

Continuing his trips to campaign hotspots, Bush heads to Pennsylvania next week _ another state he lost. He will visit with union workers in Pittsburgh and attend the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

On Aug. 29, he plans to attend the American Legion's national convention in San Antonio, Texas.

During Bush's trips this week, Democrats will try to undercut his message with tough criticism of his plans.

``Social Security isn't about maximizing private gain,'' said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. ``Social Security is about being part of a larger community that shares burdens and responsibilities.

``Democrats will fight against risky schemes that weaken Americans' retirement security, and hope that the president will support a bipartisan consensus to strengthen Social Security for future generations.''

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Sunday on NBC that any budget surplus will be eaten up by the Bush tax cut.

``We said at the time the tax cut passed that we thought it was too large and too unfocused and it would cause us to go into Social Security and Medicare, and that's what's happening right now,'' Gephardt said.

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