President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the crowd at a campaign… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Obama and Mitt Romney sparred over the future of Medicare on Wednesday in a battle to shape public opinion on the proposal byPaul D. Ryan, Romney's running mate, to revamp the popular healthcare program for the elderly and the disabled.
Both sides sought to gain an edge with seniors in Florida and other swing states with large elderly populations — and perhaps with some younger Americans looking ahead to their retirement.
The heated rhetoric on what, just days ago, was a marginal topic in the presidential race reflected the impact of Romney's decision to put the Wisconsin congressman on the Republican ticket Saturday. Obama and Romney are racing to define Ryan's image — in opposite ways — for voters previously unfamiliar with him.
Ryan's Medicare plan is the centerpiece of a proposed federal budget that Republicans in Congress have adopted as their election-year agenda. Romney has said he would sign the Ryan budget into law.
At a campaign fundraiser in Charlotte on Wednesday, Romney told NASCAR team owners and other donors that Obama "cut Medicare funding for current Medicare retirees" to pay for his healthcare overhaul.
"That came out of the Medicare trust fund," Romney told supporters at Duke Mansion, a colonial-style banquet hall. "He raided that trust fund to pay for Obamacare. And as seniors hear this, they're going to be angry."
Unmentioned by Romney: Obama's $716 billion in cuts in the projected growth of Medicare have no direct effect on the benefits that patients receive. The savings, instead, come from such areas as lower government reimbursement rates for hospitals and nursing homes.
Romney also skirted another nettlesome issue: His running mate's budget proposal relies on the same $716 billion in Medicare cuts. Restoring the cuts, as Romney advocated Wednesday in a CBS interview, would swell the federal deficit in kind. Romney, who has named deficit reduction as a top priority, said nothing about how he would cover the expense.
Campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, Obama said he had not cut benefits for seniors "by a dime." He told a crowd in Dubuque that he had reduced the cost of prescription drugs for seniors and strengthened Medicare overall.
"My plan has already extended Medicare by more than a decade," he said. "Their plan would end Medicare as we know it."
Ryan's proposal, which seeks to minimize political fallout by not taking effect for 10 years, would create a system of vouchers for seniors to buy insurance in the private market as an alternative to the program as it now stands.
Democrats say, as Obama did in Dubuque, that Ryan's plan "makes seniors pay more so they can give another tax cut to millionaires and billionaires."
Romney praised Ryan's Medicare proposal in his 59-point plan to revive the U.S. economy, saying that it "makes important strides in the right direction by keeping the system solvent and introducing market-based dynamics." Romney's Medicare plans would "share those objectives" but differ in unspecified ways, according to his economic proposal.
On "CBS This Morning," anchor Anthony Mason pressed Romney on how he squared Ryan's plan to cut spending on Medicare with his criticism of Obama for making the same reductions.
"First of all, congressman Ryan has joined my campaign, and his campaign is my campaign now, and we're on exactly the same page," Romney said. "And my campaign has made it very clear: The president's cuts of $716 billon to Medicare — those cuts are to be restored if I become president and Paul Ryan becomes vice president."
On Tuesday, Ryan also was asked to explain why he and Romney were attacking Obama for Medicare reductions that were also included in the Ryan budget.
"We are the ones who are not raiding Medicare to pay for Obamacare," Ryan told Fox News anchor Brit Hume.
Ryan appeared to take stands on both sides of the Medicare reductions. While supporting them in his budget plan, Ryan said he voted against them in the president's healthcare overhaul.
"I voted repeatedly in Congress to repeal all of Obamacare, including this cut of $716 billion to pay for Obamacare," Ryan said.
Finnegan reported from Charlotte, Parsons from Dubuque.