US: A New Target for Advisers to Swift Vets

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

Taking its cues from the success
of last year's Swift boat veterans' campaign in the presidential race, a
conservative lobbying organization has hired some of the same consultants
to orchestrate attacks on one of President Bush's toughest opponents in
the battle to overhaul Social Security.


The lobbying group, USA Next, which has poured millions of dollars into
Republican policy battles, now says it plans to spend as much as $10
million on commercials and other tactics assailing AARP, the powerhouse
lobby opposing the private investment accounts at the center of Mr.
Bush's plan.


"They are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal
savings accounts," said Charlie Jarvis, president of USA Next and
former deputy under secretary of the interior in the Reagan and first
Bush administrations. "We will be the dynamite that removes
them."


Though it is not clear how much money USA Next has in hand for the
campaign - Mr. Jarvis will not say, and the group, which claims 1.5
million members, does not have to disclose its donors - officials say
that the group's annual budget was more than $28 million last year. The
group, a membership organization with no age requirements for joining,
has also spent millions in recent years vigorously supporting Bush
proposals on tax cuts, energy and the Medicare prescription drug
plan.


So far, the groups dueling over Social Security have been relatively
tame, but the plans by USA Next foreshadow what could be a steep
escalation in the war to sway public opinion and members of Congress in
the days ahead.


Already, AARP is holding dozens of forums on the issue, has sent mailings
to its 35 million members and has spent roughly $5 million on print
advertisements in major newspapers opposing private accounts. "If we
feel like gambling," some advertisements said, "we'll play the
slots."


AARP is spending another $5 million on a new print advertising campaign
beginning this week.


To help set USA Next's strategy, the group has hired Chris LaCivita, an
enthusiastic former marine who advised Swift Vets and P.O.W.'s for Truth,
formerly known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, on its media campaign
and helped write its potent commercials. He earned more than $30,000 for
his work, campaign finance filings show.


Officials said the group is also seeking to hire Rick Reed, a partner at
Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, a firm that was hired by Swift Vets
and was paid more than $276,000 to do media production, records show.



For public relations, USA Next has turned to Creative Response Concepts,
a Virginia firm that represented both Swift Vets - the company was paid
more than $165,000 - and Regnery Publishing, the publisher of "Unfit
for Command," a book about Senator John Kerry's military service
whose co-author was John E. O'Neill, one of the primary leaders of Swift
Vets.


Swift Vets captured headlines for weeks in last year's presidential race,
when it spent millions of dollars on incendiary commercials attacking
Senator Kerry's war record. Because federal law prohibits outside groups
from coordinating with presidential campaigns during elections, the
organization came under fire when it was revealed that a lawyer for Mr.
Bush's campaign was also advising Swift Vets.


Mr. Bush criticized groups like Swift Vets last year, and his campaign
kept its distance from the groups' attacks on Mr. Kerry. In policy
battles like the one looming over Social Security, though, there is no
prohibition against coordination. Several huge business lobbies, like the
Business Roundtable, have become closely linked to Mr. Bush's plans for
Social Security and have assembled coalitions to promote the proposals
across the country.


In the case of USA Next, the group and the White House say they are not
working together. Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said the
administration was familiar with the group and has interacted with it on
issues in the past, but said that it had no input on its current efforts.
USA Next says it has taken pains to disassociate itself from the
administration, even declining to join the large lobbying coalitions the
White House is working with to pass Social Security
legislation.


"We don't like asking anyone for permission to do anything,"
Mr. Jarvis said. "We totally support the president's boldness on
Social Security, but we don't coordinate with the White House or the
Hill. We know the people at the White House agree with us and we agree
with them."


USA Next has been portraying AARP as a liberal organization out of step
with Republican values, and is now trying to discredit its stance on
Social Security. USA Next's campaign has involved appearances by its
leaders, including Art Linkletter, its national chairman, on Fox News and
various television programs. Its commercials are to be broadcast around
the country in coming weeks.


AARP, the largest organization representing middle-aged and older
Americans, is considered a major obstacle to Mr. Bush's Social Security
plan in part because of its size and influence with the elderly. Though
it is officially nonpartisan, and it stood beside the administration to
help pass a prescription drug bill in 2003, many Republicans have long
characterized the group as left-leaning.


Officials at AARP say that their organization has weathered attacks and
allegations of partisanship over the years and that they were not overly
concerned about the current barrage.


"I don't ever want to see someone attack us, but we haven't found
they had a significant impact in the past," said David Certner, the
group's director of federal affairs.


One USA Next official predicted that this time around, the campaign would
be so aggressive that the White House might not to want to associate with
it.


"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the White House
doesn't want anything to do with a group that is attacking the
AARP," the official said, adding, "We are not going to drag
them into this mess."


At one point recently, USA Next was also talking to Terry Nelson, the
former national political director of Mr. Bush's campaign who is a
partner at Dawson McCarthy Nelson Media, about working as a consultant.
But Mr. Nelson was already employed by Compass, a coalition of major
trade associations working with the White House to support Mr. Bush's
plan, and that stopped the deal. "They wanted to maintain absolute
independence," Mr. Nelson said. "They felt it was a conflict
for them."


Mr. Jarvis said the group's goal is to peel off one million members from
AARP, by presenting itself as a conservative, free-market alternative. He
says USA Next surveys show that more than 37 percent of AARP members call
themselves Republicans.


"We are going to take them on in hand-to-hand combat," said Mr.
Jarvis, who is biting in his remarks about AARP, calling the group
"stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch."


Formerly known as the United Seniors Association, USA Next was founded in
1991 by Richard Viguerie, a Republican pioneer and mastermind of direct
mailings, who raised millions of dollars from older Americans using
solicitations that sent alarming messages about Social Security. In 1992,
there were allegations that the group was used as a device to enrich
other companies owned by Mr. Viguerie, drawing criticism from watchdog
groups and Democratic lawmakers.


Mr. Jarvis, who joined the group in 2001, said he knew little about the
allegations, and Mr. Viguerie could not be reached for comment. The group
persevered and has grown in the years since then. The group spent years
primarily working with direct mail before changing to a model that
emphasized the use of heavy television and radio advertising to get its
message across, fueled by millions of dollars from wealthy donors, trade
associations and companies that share its views.


Mr. Jarvis said donors have included food, nutrition, energy and
pharmaceutical companies, which have given money to support various
advertising campaigns.


In previous years, and often during elections, the money was used to
saturate the airwaves with advertisements. In 2002, for example, the
group relied partly on money from the pharmaceutical industry to spend
roughly $9 million on television commercials and mailings supporting
Republican prescription drug legislation and the lawmakers who backed
it.


The group spent more money than any other interest group on House races
that year, according to a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, and
drew charges from Democrats that it was a stealth campaign by the
pharmaceutical industry to support House Republicans. The group denied
the allegations. Critics contended that the group was a front for
corporate special interests. In a 2002 report, Public Citizen's Congress
Watch denounced it, calling its leadership "hired
guns."


In 2003 and 2004, USA Next was again heavily represented, spending
roughly $20 million, according to the group's own numbers. It sponsored
more than 19,800 television and radio advertisements last year alone.



To USA Next, the battle lines have already been drawn, and it does not
shy away from comparisons to the veterans' campaign against Senator
Kerry. "It's an honor to be equated with the Swift boat guys,"
Mr. Jarvis said.

AMP Section Name:Money & Politics