THERE'S a battle being waged for the hearts and minds of America's senior citizens, but it's not over Medicare spending or presidential politics. This seniors war is over where retirees will settle down and spend their money.
The top retirement states - sun-drenched Florida, California, and Arizona - have lost the most recent skirmishes. Aggressive campaigns to woo senior citizens launched by neighboring states are paying off. North Carolina, for example, climbed to the fifth most popular state among retirees - up from its 1960 ranking of 27th - by enacting such senior-friendly measures as tax cuts and tapping money from home ownership.
Now, longtime retirement meccas, like Arizona, are beginning to fight back.
Arizona has identified "senior living" as one of 10 industries thought to be crucial to the state's economic development. Last year, the state staged a conference focusing on retiree services. And this year, Arizona's legislature will vote on whether to create a retirement office to address seniors' policy issues.
Why the battle? The almost 2 million retirees, with fat wallets and a desire to spend their dollars, create a demand for services and new service-related jobs wherever they land.
Seniors move primarily for amenities, while younger populations move for jobs, says Tom Rex of the Center for Business Research at Arizona State University. And unlike younger migrants, the majority of retirement migrants tend to stay in place once they have relocated.
So states across the Sun Belt (moderate climate is the biggest motivator of retirees) are catering to seniors in a myriad of ways.
*North Carolina. In one of the most aggressive state-supported programs, North Carolina has created a senior citizens affairs position in the governor's office and a division on aging in the state Department of Human Resources to hear and address seniors' concerns.
The state Legislature has eliminated the intangibles tax on all bank deposits and approved "reverse mortgages," enabling seniors to sell homes to a financial institution, then receive income for a period of time.
*South Carolina. The Legislature has eliminated a tax on Social Security and other retirement income. The state also has created an Eldercare Trust Fund, a checkoff on the state income-tax form that generates revenue for senior-specific programs.
*Mississippi. The state has a certified retirement-community program, allowing communities to qualify for matching-grant funds, educational and technical assistance, and national-advertising support.
Neither Florida nor California, which rank first and second respectively as retirement meccas, has state-supported programs to attract new retirees, according to spokespeople for the states' commerce departments.
But that may soon change as they try to stop retiree flight. In 1975 to 1980, Florida attracted 26.3 percent of all retirees who moved, according to census data. But its market share slipped to 23.8 percent between 1985 and 1990. It still remains in first place.
Second-place California also slipped from 8.7 percent of total retirees in the last half-decade of the 1970s to 6.9 percent in the 1985-90 period.
Arizona and Texas, the third- and fourth-ranked states, respectively, have also slipped slightly from their 1980 totals, but kept their same rankings. "The pie is getting bigger, but their share is getting a little smaller," says Charles Longino, professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and author of a recent book on seniors' migration patterns.
Since 1960, Arizona's retiree population age 60 and older has swelled by more than 500,000. In 1995 alone, people 55 and older in Arizona spent an estimated $13.6 billion.
But states seeking to enter the seniors war should do so carefully, says Bill Haas, chairman of the sociology department of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The drawbacks are that with increased competition, the number of retirees will be stretched too thin. "There are going to be tougher pickings," he says.
"People need to recognize that the movement of retirees that we saw in the '70s and '80s will not be duplicated in the '90s and first decade of the next century," says Professor Haas.
Dr. Longino explains that while retirees can add to a state's economy, they need "to be part of a mixed strategy that does not forget the other kinds of economic development" - particularly tourism.
A drop in tourism, in fact, could end up hurting a state's ability to attract seniors. As it turns out, Longino says, many people choose to retire in their favorite vacation spot.