AARP chief: Seniors to hit ballot box in droves
(CNN) -- "It's very obvious from what the candidates have been saying and what they've been doing that they recognize older Americans vote."
Those are the words of 73-year-old Tess Canja. Her name may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but she holds the key to one of the most crucial voting blocs in the presidential election. She's the president of AARP, the nonpartisan group of 34 million older Americans.
While AARP does not endorse candidates, it has launched a massive campaign to urge its members to get out and vote. The organization has distributed millions of voter guides to members and encouraged voter registration on its Web site. It was one of several sponsors of the presidential debates, and it even sent a "voter express bus" across the country to motivate constituents.
And the candidates know that wooing America's elders is critical to winning the election.
Vice President Al Gore has hit the airwaves with new ads in recent days highlighting Social Security. On the stump, Gore has repeatedly said he would protect the program in a "lockbox" and has attacked Texas Gov. George W. Bush's plan, saying "we've worked too hard to put it all at risk."
Bush has defended his Social Security plan in his own ad campaign. He has told voters that he will pour half the budget surplus into Social Security because "a promise this nation has made is a promise we will keep." And the Texas governor has accused Gore of "trying to scare seniors in the voting booth."
How does this grandmother view the current political debate?
"The candidates are really looking for the senior vote. Right now, Social Security is the issue they are talking about," said Canja. "I hardly think it is pandering, because everybody recognizes how important the issue is."
"It's not just an issue for older persons; it's an issue that's going to effect everybody who is aging."
Older Americans are keeping a close eye on the proposals for Social Security reform, Canja said, because "older Americans absolutely need the benefits. Any cut in benefits would be rather devastating to a lot of people."
"It's obvious with the boomers coming on that Social Security is going to need to be reformed over time," she said. "But older persons are very concerned about what the proposals might be to change Social Security."
"You wondered what people think of Social Security: They think it's a blessing. It has provided at least a floor of retirement."
Canja did say AARP has concerns over the so-called privatization of Social Security, a hot issue on Capitol Hill.
AARP President Tess Canja
"If the full amount of money is not going into the Social Security Trust Fund, and if it's not replaced, that means ... something has to be done: It's either a cut in benefits or the money has to be replaced," she said.
"I think older people understand that dilemma in such a proposal. They won't feel comfortable until they hear exactly what is going to happen to make up for that shortfall."
She said other issues affecting older Americans include prescription drug prices, Medicare, saving more money, and long-term health care.
The rising costs of prescription drugs can be devastating to those who don't have adequate coverage, Canja said.
"I can't tell you the number of letters I receive from people who have extraordinary costs. They can't eat, they cut their pills in half, they go without their medication because there's no way they can afford it," she said.
It is because of such issues that older Americans will turn out in droves on Election Day. "I can tell you," she said with a smile in her voice, "older Americans vote."
"They came through World War II with great gratitude to the country and a great gratitude for the GI Bill of Rights that sent a lot of men and women from service to college. That attitude toward 'Stars and Stripes forever' is very strong."