Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Flagler College… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — From the moment Paul D. Ryanwas picked as Mitt Romney's running mate, speculation mounted about whether the Wisconsin congressman's controversial proposal to reform Medicare would harm the ticket's prospects among seniors, notably in this battleground state.
On Monday, as Romney campaigned on Florida's Gold Coast, he argued that Ryan and Republicans sought to protect the healthcare program for the elderly and that President Obama would gut it.
Ryan 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."
Romney's line, a regular one since the Republican team started pushing back on Democratic criticisms of Ryan, misstates Obama's plan. It does not slash benefits for recipients, nor does it cut spending — it slows future growth in spending, which will affect providers.
Ryan's 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 and Obama had forwarded some of the same savings measures and said healthcare costs would rise for Americans pushed into the private market.
"Mitt Romney's not telling the truth about the Medicare savings in the health reform law," said Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith. "It's unfortunate that Mitt Romney would rather distort the truth than have an honest debate."
Ryan's absence from the trip — Monday marked the first time he has appeared separately from Romney since being named his running mate Saturday — was seized upon by Democrats who argued that it showed Ryan was a liability in Florida. 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.
The audience at the Romney rally was a sympathetic group, and many said Ryan's proposals for Medicare should not hurt his chances in Florida.
"If we don't address these issues, there's not going to be any Medicare to talk about," said Bret Bradley Burchfield, 49, a computer analyst from St. Augustine. "Obama has no plan to fix it."
Romney underscored that argument while talking to reporters on the tarmac of Miami's airport, saying the nation cannot ignore forecasts that Medicare eventually will be insolvent.
"The truth is, we simply cannot continue to pretend like a Medicare on track to go bankrupt at some point is acceptable," he said. He offered few specifics of his plan other than to say that he wanted to expand the policies available to recipients and "make sure the promises we are making are promises we can keep."
John Lalley, a 69-year-old retiree at the rally, said the Romney campaign must ensure that seniors understand Ryan's proposal would not affect current recipients, but rather future recipients who are now younger than 55.
"I think that's the biggest challenge they face here," Lalley said.
Ryan raises another political complication in Florida: He twice voted to oppose the U.S. embargo against Cuba, a position that is anathema to Cuban American voters who fled the regime of Fidel Castro or whose relatives suffered under it. During a chaotic evening event at a fresh-fruit juice stand in a Cuban neighborhood in Miami, Romney did not mention Cuba once.
Romney did appear on a radio station popular with exiles and assured listeners that Ryan changed his position after meeting with Florida lawmakers of Cuban descent, according to a report on Univision.