Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican running mate, is scheduled… (Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty…)
THE VILLAGES, Fla. — In Florida, the jobs picture is worse than the national average. Foreclosures still weigh down home sales, and gasoline prices are back on the rise.
But since Paul Ryan joined Mitt Romney's ticket, the campaign debate has turned abruptly away from President Obama's record on jobs and the economy and toward Ryan's proposals for overhauling Medicare, an issue that historically favors Democrats and is generating more than casual interest in senior-heavy Florida. The election's biggest swing state has the largest proportion of over-65 residents in the country, most of whom rely on federal benefits for the bulk of their income.
Besides giving unexpected prominence to a topic that could hurt Romney's chances, the back-and-forth over Medicare shows the unusual extent to which the campaign has re-centered around his running mate. On Saturday, Ryan will invite more attention to Medicare when he makes his Florida campaign debut at the state's largest retirement community. His 78-year-old mother, who splits her time between Wisconsin and South Florida, was expected to join him.
A new Obama TV ad zeros in on "the Ryan plan," claiming that it "would undermine Medicare," and that "Ryan's voucher plan" could take an extra $6,400 a year out of seniors' pockets. The Obama ad is a response to a Romney campaign ad designed to neutralize resistance to the Wisconsin congressman's proposal, which Romney essentially adopted months ago. The plan would give future Medicare recipients the option of using a subsidy to shop for private insurance.
The Romney ad argues that Republicans are the ones with a plan to preserve and protect the program — a calculated gamble to blunt any vulnerability. The 30-second spot, featuring more images of Ryan than Romney, warns seniors that "the money you paid for your guaranteed healthcare is going to a massive new government program that's not for you."
(That refers to $716 billion in cuts to Medicare providers — not recipients — that would be used to help pay for seniors' drug coverage and to supplement coverage for the uninsured. Ryan's plan adopted the same savings, with the money used to offset tax cuts.)
Despite the clashing arguments, neither side can be completely certain just how the fight over Medicare will play out.
A top Obama campaign advisor in Florida predicted that it would shave about 3 or 4 percentage points off Romney's support from the state's senior population — which casts more than one-fifth of the ballots statewide — and ultimately add about 1 point overall to the president's total.
That's hardly a massive swing, but, with the race essentially tied, "this is a state that is won or lost at the margins" said the advisor, who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly for the Obama campaign.
But Romney's campaign pollster sees an opportunity.
"This issue has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. It's now inextricably linked to Obamacare and that inextricable link makes it a winning issue for Republicans," said Neil Newhouse, who added that Romney and Ryan would soon swing the debate back to the economy and jobs.
He predicted that the current emphasis on healthcare would make Medicare less of a factor in the closing weeks of the campaign. "It takes Medicare off the table by October. By October, no voter is going to have any new information on this issue that they haven't heard over the next few weeks."
But some GOP strategists worry privately that Ryan could drive away enough seniors to jeopardize Romney's chances of carrying the state and its 29 electoral votes, considered essential to Republican chances of defeating Obama. A survey of 62 Republican insiders by the Tampa Bay Times found that one-third believe Ryan will hurt Romney in Florida.
"I have to believe [Romney and his inner circle] know something we don't know," said a Romney campaign advisor, who sought anonymity to offer a candid appraisal. "It seems to me that the country is not ready for that strong medicine yet," referring to Ryan's budget-cutting zeal.
Older voters are an essential element of the Romney coalition. In the 2008 election, voters 65 and older were the only age group that Obama lost. And voters 65 and older favored Romney by between 4 and 11 percentage points, according to national polls taken before last weekend's vice-presidential announcement.
In interviews over the last few days, the sudden prominence of Medicare hadn't yet changed many minds. But area seniors are paying close attention.
"I don't like what they're proposing with this voucher thing," said Gloria Randall, 65, of Lady Lake, who said she was leaning toward Obama but would like to see "a good debate" this fall before deciding whether she'll vote for the Democrat or stay home.
Rich Deming, 62, who sells real estate in the Villages, likes Ryan and his plan. "It's one less thing for the government to spend money on," he said.
Rick Jones, 66, a school principal who moved down from West Virginia 14 years ago, saw no reason for anyone to mess with the Medicare program, which works well for him and others, he said.
"It's going to hurt Romney down here," he predicted. "They'll just scare people when they talk about Medicare."
Republicans hope Ryan will help Romney draw additional support from independent voters, including younger voters, for whom government spending and cutting the federal deficit are overriding concerns.
Sheila Ferguson, 41, a case manager at a hospital that serves the Villages, said Ryan "brings a spark that Romney needs. He brings a youngness and the views that we believe in to the campaign."
She says that money is short for Medicare and that, under Obama's policies, the oldest seniors will eventually see their benefits taken away. "You won't get your knee replacement," she predicted.