WASHINGTON - All the tactics of a political campaign - TV ads, grass-roots organizing, town hall meetings and polling - are being tapped to influence opinion and pressure lawmakers in the explosive debate on Social Security.
Together, advocates on both sides plan to spend tens of millions of dollars, perhaps as much as $100 million, before the year is out. That's less than Social Security pays out in benefits every two hours but still a lot for a legislative campaign.
"Social Security is the kind of issue you can knock on anyone's door and talk about. It's made for campaigning," said Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org, which put up its first TV ads this week opposing President Bush's plan.
Republicans and their allies, including well-funded groups backed by business, are trying to build support for Bush's plan to divert some of the Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts that could be invested in stocks, bonds and the money market. Democrats and their allies, including AARP and labor unions, are trying to stop them.
Some of the money boosting the plan is coming from Wall Street firms that could make money managing the private accounts and employers who prefer such accounts to raising taxes, another option for solving Social Security's long-term financial problems.
Beyond these direct interests, the campaign's intensity reflects a deep philosophical divide over the role of government.
Bush will make the case himself in his State of the Union speech tonight. He'll then embark on a campaign-style swing through five states, all represented by Senate Democrats who the GOP thinks might be pressured into supporting the Bush plan.
Opponents plan to meet Bush at each stop with demonstrators and, in many cases, with Democratic members of Congress who oppose his plans.
The Republican National Committee is treating Social Security as an extension of the presidential campaign, tapping into its network of donors and its e-mail list of 7.5 million.
It also has set up a "war room," with a daily conference call to ensure that its allies are delivering the same message. Media outside Washington, bloggers and talk radio shows are being targeted. And 1.6 million volunteers are being mobilized to write letters.
"We're going to have an operation here employing campaign-style tactics and election-year intensity," said Brian Jones of the RNC. "It's a full-throttle effort right now."