Dueling press releases:
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: "THE REVIEWS ARE IN: SANTORUM'S SOCIAL SECURITY ROADSHOW WAS A BUST!!! ... Pennsylvanians – Young and Old – Reject Santorum's Scheme to Privatize Social Security"
National Republican Senatorial Committee: "Rather Than Offer Ideas or Solutions, Democrats Offer Doom and Gloom Attack Politics... Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-PA) Social Security Town Hall Meetings Are A Success"
I'm not sure what the NRSC is talking about here. Both sides clip the most favorable quotes out of context from media reports on Santorum's meetings with constituents, but even Santorum himself was forced to admit to the New York Times that the meetings did not go well:
After a bruising weeklong recess, Congressional Republicans will return to work on Monday chastened by public skepticism over President Bush's plan for private accounts in Social Security. One leading Republican, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that the opposition was better organized while another, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said bipartisan compromise was unlikely unless the president can change the public mood.
"It's a heavy lift," Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Friday, after a week spent crisscrossing his home state to play host to 17 town-hall-style meetings. He said the sessions ended "without my getting much of a consensus of where people are, except general confusion," and with the president still facing "a major job of educating people."
The story was much the same throughout the country, as Republicans - some already skittish over Mr. Bush's plan - spent the week trying to assuage nervous constituents. Instead of building support for Mr. Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to divert payroll taxes into private retirement accounts, some of the events turned into fractious gripe sessions and others did not go nearly as well as their hosts had hoped.
...Mr. Santorum complained that he was dogged all week by opponents of the White House plan who dominated news coverage. Mr. Santorum, who is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership and chairman of the subcommittee on Social Security, was heckled by college students - the very audience the Bush administration was counting on - and peppered with questions from retirees.
"Clearly the other side is better organized," Mr. Santorum said. "They got people to all these events. They had seniors lined up to ask questions, they had staff people running up passing them notes."
Even so, Mr. Santorum described himself as encouraged at the level of interest; both he and Mr. Grassley said it was far too early to predict the outcome...
AARP, the powerful retirees' organization that opposes private accounts financed by payroll taxes, has been tracking the meetings.../p>
"We've yet to find one where there was an enthusiastic reception," said John Rother, the group's policy director. "The most positive reception people are getting is lots of questions, and there's significant skepticism. This is proving to be a tough sell, and our polling suggests that the more people know, the harder the sell."
As I said a couple of weeks ago, Bush's plan is dead in the water and no one knows it yet. The White House has not been able to create a majority coalition in favor of private accounts, and the intensity of feeling at the grassroots is much stronger among opponents. The only question is when the administration will start moving toward a less risky compromise or pivot to another issue.
Update 2/27: The Washington Post reports that Republicans are already start to push for such a compromise, and offer this ominous warning:
Over four years, this president usually has chosen defiance rather than difference-splitting in dealing with opponents. He has dismissed making premature concessions by saying he does not like to "negotiate with myself."
But history suggests waiting too long can be equally self-defeating. In late 1993 and early 1994, there were ample signs that Clinton's comprehensive health care plan was in trouble, but there were also many senior Republicans who said they would work with him to pass incremental reforms. Some of these measures would have been substantial -- expanding health insurance for children or providing subsidies to help more individuals buy their own insurance.
Clinton, at the urging of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, refused to yield. In the 1994 State of the Union address, he waved a pen and warned Congress that he would veto any plan that did not meet his goal of universal coverage for every American. By summer, when it become obvious that his comprehensive plan was dead, Republicans were relishing Clinton's political troubles and none was still willing to compromise. That fall, Republicans swept to control in Congress, an advantage they keep to this day.