ORLANDO, Fla. - Vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan is telling seniors they have nothing to worry about when it comes to Medicare and Social Security if his Republican Party wins the White House. Don't believe him? Just ask his 78-year-old mother.
Betty Ryan Douglas was set to campaign Saturday with her son at the world's largest retirement community as the presumptive GOP presidential ticket seeks to blunt withering criticism from President Barack Obama and his allies. The Democratic team charges that Mitt Romney and Ryan would gut programs for older Americans.
Obama planned to dig in on that point in New Hampshire on Saturday with stops in Windham and Rochester. Aides say he will cast the voters' choice as one between two fundamentally different approaches to government's responsibility to its citizens and who pays the bill.
Romney, meanwhile, was set to raise money in Massachusetts while his freshly minted running mate was charging into a potentially dicey audience. Older Americans have often resisted changes in Medicare, the federal health care insurance program for people 65 and older, and for the disabled.
The Romney-Ryan ticket is betting big that voters' worries about federal deficits and the Democrats' health care overhaul have opened the door for a robust debate on the solvency of Medicare, one of the government's most popular and costliest programs. Obama has welcomed the conversation, which has temporarily taken attention from the weak economic recovery.
Trying to reach crucial female voters, Obama's campaign released an ad Friday that sought to undercut Romney by pointing to Ryan's voting record on funding for Planned Parenthood and abortion. "For women, for president, the choice is ours," the ad says. It was airing in Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Iowa.
In the week since Romney announced Ryan as his running mate, Medicare and Social Security have appeared as a driving issue in the presidential race. Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa are among the top five states in the country in the percentage of people 65 and over, and all three are battleground states.
Polling generally shows that the public places more trust in Democrats' ability to handle Medicare than they do Republicans. People also generally oppose plans to replace the current program with one in which future seniors receive a fixed amount of money from the government to be used to purchase health coverage, according to polls.
At the same time, polling shows the public strongly believes the financial security of Medicare as well as Social Security must be guaranteed for the long term. Government reports for years have warned of a looming shortfall if something isn't done to change course.
Ryan's challenge — and Romney's, by extension — is to convince seniors, who reliably vote, that the GOP ticket is best positioned to cure the ailing system for them and their grandchildren.
"We will not duck the tough issues. We will lead," Ryan told a Virginia crowd on Friday.
Ryan's stop Saturday at the gated retirement cluster known as The Villages is familiar ground for presidential candidates. Florida has the highest concentration of voters over age 65 in the country. Some 17 percent of Floridians fall into that group.
New Hampshire, where Obama will campaign later in the day, has 14 percent of its residents over age 65.
While residents of this Florida cluster of retirees make this a conservative stronghold — its builder is H. Gary Morse, a wealthy developer who is backing Romney — it also could be tricky for Ryan, Congress' chief advocate of significantly restraining entitlement programs.
Put simply: Voters like their Medicare and Social Security.
Looking to connect with this group, the 42-year-old lawmaker told "60 Minutes" that the issues hit close to home.
"My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida," he said.
Betty Ryan Douglas spends part of her year in Broward County's Lauderdale-by-the-Sea community and has been registered to vote in Florida since 1997. Campaign aides said she would appear during the morning rally with her son.
Kuhnhenn reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Feller in Washington, Charles Babington in Boston, Steve Peoples in Glen Allen, Va., and Ken Thomas and Julie Pace and Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.