A Mainer could find himself in the midst of the growing Social Security brouhaha.

Erik Potholm, who grew up in Harpswell and graduated from Colby College with honors, is a partner with Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, an Alexandria, Va., firm that specializes in campaign media.

Rick Reed, another of the firm’s partners, has been asked by the conservative lobbying group USA Next to help it promote President Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security.

The heart of Bush’s plan calls for privatizing a portion of Social Security investments, letting younger participants pick and choose how their money is managed.

The New York Times reported in its Monday editions that USA Next plans to spend $10 million on commercials and other efforts to undermine AARP, the lobbying group that represents the interests of 35 million members, nearly all of them older Americans.

AARP has already spent about $5 million on print ads and private mailings opposing private Social Security accounts.

“If we feel like gambling,” some of its spots said, “we’ll play the slots.”

The Times quoted USA Next President Charlie Jarvis as calling AARP “the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts,” adding that his group “will be the dynamite that removes them.”

“There is no question,” said Potholm, “that the current Social Security fight may be the biggest public affairs campaign in Washington since the failed Clinton health-care plan in 1993.”

The Times reported that USA Next has hired Chris LaCivita, a former Marine who advised the Swift boat veterans and the group P.O.W.s for Truth in their campaign to discredit Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry during the presidential campaign last year.

Potholm’s company produced the Swift boat ads used against Kerry.

“When it comes to Social Security,” he said, “President Bush and the Republican Congress have a much more difficult task. They must first convince people there is a problem – that’s why you’ve seen the president travel all around the country laying out the serious challenges the current system is facing. Then, they have to convince people that reform – in whatever shape in takes – is the solution.

“The Democrats, on the other hand, have a much easier job,” he continued via an e-mail interview exchange. “All they have to do is raise doubts about it. They can just be against it.”

There’s a danger in doing that, though.

“It is much harder to convince people to vote ‘yes’ than it is to vote ‘no.’ Of course, by not offering an alternative solution,” he said, “the Democrats in Washington run the big risk of simply being seen as obstructionists, which greatly turns off voters.”

He declined to discuss details of the USA Next campaign.

Potholm is the son of Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor of government and Republican political consultant.

The younger Potholm credits his father and Greg Stevens, his partner, with influencing his career choice.

And while he says he’d rather spend his summers lobstering off Harpswell, he has responsibilities to his clients.

“Whether I’m working in DC, Florida or Maine, the thing I always tell clients is that nothing is more important in political advertising than your credibility. Every spot you produce must be credible and defensible. If it’s not, it won’t be effective. When you make a case to voters, I like to think of it as making a case to the jury. You have to lay out your arguments and support it with evidence. Then they make the final decision,” he said.

((Eds: There’s a pix of erik potholm on the company’s web site: www.srcpmedia.com/potholm that we might be able to download to illustrate this.))

Campaign record

Some of the campaigns Erik Potholm has worked on in Maine:

• 1997 passage of Maine Turnpike widening

• 2000 defeat of physician-assisted suicide and forestry referendums

• 2003 defeat of casino referendum (with partner Greg Stevens)

• 2003-04 passage of Question 1A – tax and education reform

• 2004 defeat of bear-baiting and tax cap referendums

“There is no question that the current Social Security fight may be the biggest public affairs campaign in Washington since the failed Clinton health care plan in 1993.”
Erik Potholm

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