A group of senior citizens said Thursday they believe Republican Jesse Kelly is the best candidate to protect the benefits they've earned.

About 30 seniors stood behind Kelly at a press conference Thursday to show their support for the candidate, who has been hammered by his opponent for remarks he made during his failed attempt to win the Congressional District 8 seat in 2010 about wanting to phase out Medicare and privatize and eliminate Social Security.

Vince Leach, 63, of SaddleBrooke, said Kelly understands the Social Security and Medicare systems and the need to look at where they are and where they need to go.

"Jesse is willing and able to go into Washington and bring fresh new ideas," said Leach, who was a salesman for a metal melting company. "He comes from a generation that wants to do something about the problem, not just talk about it."

The protection of Medicare and Social Security has become a keystone issue in the CD 8 special election; voters will choose between Kelly, Democrat Ron Barber and Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis to complete Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' term.

Barber and the Democrats have been reminding voters through emails and TV ads that Kelly said in 2009-2010 that he wanted to phase out Medicare and privatize and eliminate Social Security. The Barber campaign said no matter how much Kelly tries to distance himself from his past comments, voters should not trust him to protect Medicare and Social Security.

On Thursday, Kelly touted support from seniors across Southern Arizona who like his commitment to protecting their benefits. He said he's always been clear that he's been committed to protecting benefits that seniors have earned.

"These are not welfare programs, these are programs people have paid into all their lives," Kelly said Thursday. "We will honor our commitments."

Asked to elaborate on how he would protect the programs, Kelly said he would do so by growing the economy through cultivation of oil, natural gas and clean coal here in the United States.

"We are sitting on top of a mountain of money," Kelly said. "If we embrace energy, get the government obstructions out of the way, that will bring in the revenue we need to not only create jobs, not only reduce gas prices, but it will fund the benefits that seniors have earned."

Kelly's official stance on Social Security and Medicare has changed slightly since the April 17 Republican primary.

Until recently, his website said Kelly supported protecting Social Security while giving younger workers the option of putting a portion of their contribution into personal retirement accounts.

"Individuals can choose from a range of appropriate retirement options: such as a blend of guaranteed savings accounts, investment grade bonds, and blue chip equities," the website said at the time. "Americans should have the same options that Congress has through the Federal Thrift Savings Plan. We must not allow the bankruptcy of Social Security through lack of action."

That paragraph is no longer on the website.

The section now says Kelly supports "preserving, protecting and strengthening" Social Security and Medicare, and that he does not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out the programs. It says Kelly favors finding a bipartisan solution and is against any solution that includes privatizing Social Security, raising taxes, cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.

The section was rewritten to clarify his commitment to protecting the benefits of seniors, said Kelly's spokesman, John Ellinwood. He didn't answer why the paragraph about allowing people to put contributions into personal accounts was deleted.

Barber's campaign sees the revision as the latest example of Kelly trying to backpedal from his past opinions.

"He's trying to have his own Etch a Sketch moment," said Barber's spokeswoman, Jessica Schultz. "He's really trying to reverse himself here."

But for the group called Seniors for Kelly, his plan to protect their benefits is great.

"Jesse understands that seniors have been hit very hard by this economy and that pro-growth policies and American energy production will improve opportunities not only for seniors, but for all Americans," said Doris Clatanoff, 80, of SaddleBrooke.

Early ballots go out on May 17 in the CD8 special election, which will be held on June 12.

CD8 TV ads

Republican Jesse Kelly has a new TV ad featuring his grandpa Hank Allgyer in which Kelly says he's committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare for seniors.

The ad is paid for by Kelly's campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which previously paid for another TV ad in opposition of his Democratic opponent, Ron Barber.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Congressional Committee expanded the amount of airtime they've bought for a TV ad in opposition to Kelly to $473,000, up from $150,000.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com