Mitt Romney speaks at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. (Phil Sandlin / Associated…)
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — As soon as Paul Ryan was picked as Mitt Romney’s running mate, speculation spiked about whether the Wisconsin congressman’s controversial proposal to reform Medicare would harm the GOP ticket’s prospects among seniors, notably in this battleground state.
On Monday, as Romney stumped on Florida’s Gold Coast, he addressed the matter head-on, arguing that Ryan and Republicans seek to protect the healthcare program for the elderly, whereas President Obama has gutted it.
Paul has “come up with ideas that are very different from the president’s. The president’s idea, for instance, for Medicare was to cut by $700 billion,” he said, prompting boos from supporters gathered on the steamy west lawn of Flagler College.“That’s not the right answer. We want to make sure we preserve and protect Medicare.”
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Obama’s plan does not slash benefits for recipients, nor does it cut spending -- it slows future growth in spending, which will affect providers. Ryan’s own budget proposal would not restore any of that $700 billion in provider-payment cuts. (Obama would use the money to finance the expansion of healthcare; in Ryan’s plan it would be used to offset loss of revenue from tax cuts.) Ryan also would save trillions of dollars over a decade by pushing younger Americans toward privatization.
Obama’s campaign noted that Ryan has proposed some of the same savings measures contained in Obama’s plan and said that Ryan’s plan would raise seniors' healthcare costs by pushing them into the private market.
“Mitt Romney’s not telling the truth about the Medicare savings in the health reform law,” said spokeswoman Lis Smith. “It’s unfortunate that Mitt Romney would rather distort the truth than have an honest debate about the devastating impact the Romney-Ryan plan would have on Florida’s seniors.”
Ryan’s absence from the trip — Monday marked the first time he has not appeared with Romney since being named his running mate on Saturday -- was seized upon by Democrats who said it showed Ryan was a liability. Pushing back, the Romney campaign announced Sunday that Ryan would campaign in Florida this weekend.
Medicare is a pressing issue in Florida, a battleground state that Obama narrowly won in 2008, because of its large senior population. Current polls show a tight race.
Audience members at the Romney rally were a self-selected, sympathetic group, and many said Ryan’s proposal to reform Medicare should not hurt his chances in Florida because voters need to understand that the current entitlement system is unsustainable.
“If we don’t address these issues, there’s not going to be any Medicare to talk about,” said Bret Bradley Burchfield, a 49-year-old computer analyst from St. Augustine. “Obama has no plan to fix it.”
But Pat and John Lalley said it was critical for the Romney campaign to make sure voters in Florida, notably seniors, understand that Ryan’s proposal would not affect current recipients, but rather those under 55. Many voters do not understand the facts, said John Lalley, 69, of St. Johns.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge they face here,” said the retiree. “It’s up to each one of us to help educate each other.”
Romney also highlighted other issues of local importance, including the housing crisis, which disproportionately affected Florida, as well as the space program. (His campaign stop was not far from the Space Coast.)
His remarks about NASA brought to mind comments by Newt Gingrich during the Florida primary, which at the time Romney mocked. Gingrich had called for the construction of a moon colony by 2020.
"This is still the greatest nation on Earth. I know there are people around the world who are always critical of America, have something negative to say, say our greatest days are in the past. Baloney,” Romney said. “We just won more Olympic medals than any other nation on Earth. You also just saw we just landed on Mars and took a good look at what's going on there. And I know the Chinese are planning on going to the moon, and I hope they have a good experience doing that and I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago.”
Romney grew more somber about space at the end of his speech, as he recalled meeting Boy Scouts who convinced NASA to put their American flag onto a space shuttle. As they watched the shuttle Challenger take off on television, it exploded. For months and months, their Scout leader called NASA to see if the flag had been found among the debris. Eventually it was, and to their amazement had been undamaged. It flew on a flagpole at a Boy Scout celebration Romney was attending.