Democrats assailed Ryan plan, but GOP ticket vowed to play offense.
TAMPA, FLA. - With Mitt Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Florida quickly emerged on Monday as a critical test of the nationwide Republican gamble that concerns over the mounting federal debt can blunt potent Democratic attacks on conservative proposals to revamp Medicare.
As Romney campaigned through Florida on Monday, Democrats greeted him with a barrage of assaults, including a Web advertisement featuring worried elderly voters in this battleground state. The campaign took on a more heated air as President Obama suggested in Iowa that the Republican ticket would "end Medicare as we know it," a warning echoed in North Carolina by Vice President Joe Biden.
Assailing proposed changes to the retiree health plan is a time-tested line of attack, nowhere more so than in Florida, where voters 65 and older made up 22 percent of the electorate in the 2008 presidential election. Polls show that a majority of elderly voters nationally oppose changes in Medicare or Social Security, which Ryan in the past has also proposed altering.
The implications extend beyond Florida. Elderly voters are significant forces in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia and Pennsylvania, all states that could help determine the outcome of the election.
Aides to Obama said they would target older voters in those states by spotlighting Ryan's proposal, broadly endorsed by Romney, to make Medicare a choice between private insurance and traditional coverage in the belief that more competition would drive down costs and improve care. Democrats say the plan, under which retirees would get a set amount of money from the government each year to purchase insurance coverage, would lead to higher costs and lower-quality care for many retirees.
"I think it should be left alone," said Lee Berkowitz, 87, a Democrat in North Hollywood, Fla., who voted for Obama in 2008 but said he has not decided whom to support in November.
Romney and Ryan signaled Monday that they intended to go on the offensive, challenging the assumption that Republicans were better off playing down the issue. They are gambling that anxiety about deficits, the influence of the Tea Party movement and changing demographics will give them a chance to convince voters that the time has come to confront the rapidly mounting costs of sustaining entitlement programs. Ryan is scheduled to visit Florida later this month.
"Every even-numbered year in Florida, seniors are accustomed to Mediscare tactics; that's what Democrats do," said Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney. "The fact is, we're going to go on offense here. Because the president has raided the Medicare trust fund to the tune of $716 million to pay for a massive expansion of government known as Obamacare. There won't be a single senior citizen in Florida who won't know that by November."
Republican candidates have gained experience in campaigns where Democrats have focused on Ryan's Medicare proposal -- in congressional races in Nevada and New York -- and have developed what they think is an effective way to counter it. That strategy includes assailing Obama's health care plan, and noting that it was paid for in part by taking over $700 billion from Medicare.
"The president's idea, for instance, for Medicare was to cut by $700 billion," Romney said at rally in St. Augustine. "That's not the right answer. We want to make sure we preserve and protect Medicare."
Key to a push-back, Republican officials said, is using elderly surrogates -- like a candidate's parents -- to counter the idea that the party's approach is heartless or would leave retirees worse off.
Ryan has already begun noting that his mother, a Medicare recipient, lives in southern Florida.
Romney's advisers argued that Ryan's proposal was nuanced enough, since it would not apply to anyone currently on, or soon to go on, Medicare, to partially blunt Obama's attacks
For all that, even Republicans said the choice of Ryan had not made Romney's task in Florida any easier, particularly because he passed over Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
'Ryan could hurt Romney'
"Ryan Could Hurt Romney in Florida," read the banner headline on the Sunday edition of the Miami Herald.
"It puts the state in play," said Joseph Gaylord, a Republican consultant who lives in the state. "Rubio would have been the best candidate."
And in Des Moines, on his first solo outing as a member of the ticket, Ryan was heckled on the issue as he tried to speak at the Iowa State Fair, an indication of the intensity of the battle ahead for him.
Still, Gaylord said: "It's a legitimate argument if it's an argument that goes unanswered. But you go on the offensive on it -- the truth is, it's not going to affect any current seniors -- and get that into every discussion about health care you have."
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