BUSH'S HARD SELL

Just five days before delivering the first State of the Union of his new term, President Bush dispatched his senior aides to ask his party for some unusual advice about the landmark address: what should he say about Social Security? At a party retreat in the Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.--an exclusive resort that once served as the Capitol's secret nuclear bunker--Bush's advisers were still wrestling late last week with the language of the speech. The president wanted to flesh out his plans to overhaul Social Security, but how much should he say about specifics such as personal accounts or the cost of it all? For several days, GOP leaders had pressed the president to do a better job of selling his ideas to a skeptical public.

Now it was Bush's turn to push his own party to work out the radioactive details. "You're the lawmakers," the president told one anxious Republican who inquired whether the White House would write its own bill. "I am willing to lead, but this is your job."

Bush likes to say he's already touched the third rail of politics and lived to tell the tale. But there was far less confidence inside the GOP. For a White House that prides itself on bold leadership and message discipline, the last-minute debate over the president's speech reflects a rare moment of caution and candid consultation. Members of Congress told the president's aides that Bush needed to calm public fears--stoked by his Democratic foes--about changes to Social Security in this week's State of the Union. And when they weren't debating the terms of the speech, White House staffers were counseling nervous lawmakers--many of them up for re-election in two years' time--on how they could survive the ordeal together.

That won't be easy for a party that's divided on substance as well as strategy. Social conservatives feel uneasy about spending so much time on an issue that doesn't electrify the base; fiscal conservatives feel uneasy about spending so much money at a time of record deficits. In the House, Republicans want to know their full marching orders on Social Security; in the Senate, Republicans want the freedom to find their own drumbeat. The result: the extraordinary sight of congressional Republicans sniping at the re-elected president for allowing the Social Security debate to drift out of his control. To Bush's Democratic critics, the disarray underscores how little political capital the president really has as he starts his second term. But to his supporters, the extensive consultation is merely an indication he's making good on his pledge to play well with others.

This week marks what the White House hopes will be a turning point. The president will spend much of his State of the Union answering the critics of Social Security reform, dealing with the vast cost of the partial transition to private accounts--and the fear that such accounts will be either too risky for retirees or a bonanza for Wall Street. After the address, Bush will return to the campaign trail, selling his Social Security plans in five states that just happen to be home to moderate Democratic senators who are either fighting for re-election in 2006 or are key players in the retirement debate. Republicans at the party retreat said their spirits were boosted when Karl Rove, the president's political architect, told them he couldn't think of any GOP candidate in the last three cycles who debated Social Security and lost--including Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and John Sununu in New Hampshire. "I know some people may believe, 'This will hurt me in my election'," Bush told legislators in the Greenbrier's ballroom last week. "I disagree. I believe the American people will reward you for leading."

Whatever the electoral calculation, Social Security has already reshaped the relationship between Bush's White House and the GOP caucus on the Hill. Unlike previous clashes on Medicare or intelligence reform, the president is struggling to pick off Democrats, many of whom have drawn a line in the sand over rewriting FDR's social contract. In the past, House Republicans say, the White House has threatened to cut a deal with Democrats if they refused to give way. This time, there's none of the old table-thumping. Members of Congress have also been far more ready to flex their muscles. GOP leaders are outspoken about the need to build public support for the still-sketchy plans, demanding an aggressive sales pitch from Bush in the weeks and months ahead. "I think most members of the Senate feel that the case still has to be made that we need to address this issue," Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator and majority whip, told NEWSWEEK. "We're looking to the president to articulately state the case for why we should deal with this now."

Some senior Republican operatives fault the president's team for failing to realize that the debate would begin so quickly on the details of Social Security. Inside the White House, aides said the transition to the new term slowed their response. But the shift in gears is already underway. At a hastily staged press conference last week, the president studiously avoided using the word "crisis" to talk about the issue--after Congress sounded unconvinced about the Chicken Little tactics--preferring instead the less alarming "problem." Bush's aides downplayed the differences as matters of presentation more than policy. "There isn't a kind of coup being led by members of the House or Senate saying, 'Don't do this'," said one senior White House official. "It's all tactical."

As a result, the Greenbrier sessions looked and sounded more like a marketing exercise than a debating society. Members of Congress (plus their spouses) sat around horseshoe tables to watch PowerPoint presentations on polling and PR, learning what language to use about Social Security. Every member left the retreat with a 100-page "resource guide" on the subject, coauthored by congressional and White House officials. "If we're going to take on an adult issue," said one aide to a Republican leader, "we need to employ an adult marketing plan."

The battle for public opinion, however, is also grounded in the cold realities of the midterm elections. Without public support for big changes to Social Security, Republicans risk the kind of backlash that followed Bill and Hillary Clinton's attempted health-care overhaul in 1994. Party leaders have mapped out a three-month campaign that seeks to reassure retirees they won't see cuts in benefits, before reaching out to younger voters about personal accounts. By early summer, they hope the polls show broader support for their Social Security plans as the legislation starts to take shape. If that doesn't map out, the next time they head to the Greenbrier--at the start of yet another election year--they could always skip the PowerPoint sessions for a tour of the bunker.