Paul D. Ryan, seen in April, made a strategic campaign stop in The Villages,… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- Republican vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan’s initial campaign visit to Florida, site of this month’s Republican nominating convention, was to The Villages, a hotbed of Republican retirees. Residents were encouraged to arrive in their golf carts for the outdoor rally Saturday.
Hundreds of supporters jammed one of the development’s “town squares,” where free entertainment and boozy dances each night have helped this community of 60,000 seniors earn a somewhat double-edged reputation as Disney World for the Cialis set.
Open-air bars at the event began pouring before 8 a.m. Happy-hour pricing was in effect: $2.75 for a 14-ounce margarita. However, a Chick-fil-A stand did a brisker business.
The privately held, and tightly controlled, retirement complex is a regular campaign stop for GOP presidential candidates. During a primary campaign visit in January, Romney was moved to song. His slightly off-key rendition here of “American the Beautiful” became the soundtrack of an Obama attack ad against him this summer.
Romney counts billionaire H. Gary Morse, who built The Villages on more than 30 square miles of central Florida farmland, among his campaign’s biggest donors. A co-chairman of Romney’s Florida finance committee, Morse, family members and their corporation have already given more than $1 million to the Romney campaign and the "super PAC" supporting him.
Republican strategists in Florida are worried that elevating the debate over Medicare could hurt their party’s chances in November. President Obama carried Florida in 2008 and public polling in the state has shown the race virtually deadlocked for months.
More than one in five voters is 65 or older in Florida, where Medicare is also a central issue in the U.S. Senate race. Incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, echoing the Obama line, is warning voters that his Republican challenger, Rep. Connie Mack IV, wants to “end Medicare as we know it.”
Some Republican strategists say the Medicare issue has lost its potency as the old New Deal generation dies off and today's senior generation becomes more Republican and conservative. For many of them, as well as younger voters, cutting government spending and bringing the federal budget into balance are important issues, they say.
At the same time, though, the intense concentration on Medicare has detoured the campaign debate far from the issues that Romney has said he needs to focus on if he is to unseat Obama: jobs and the painstakingly slow recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist, said that seniors are also no different from younger voters when it comes to their overriding concern about the economy, whether it is for themselves or their children and grandchildren.
“For Obama, any time the campaigns are talking about anything other than the economy, it’s probably a good thing,” he said.
Interviews with voters at The Villages prior to Ryan’s arrival provided no definitive clues to the question both sides are watching: Will Ryan’s reputation as a deficit hawk and the Republican push to curtail government spending on entitlements backfire in a state where most of those over 65 are mainly living on Social Security payments and relying on Medicare to cover their health costs.
Al Cherry, 73, a retiree from Illinois, voted for John McCain four years ago, even though, he said, he “didn’t respect Sarah Palin,” that year’s GOP vice-presidential candidate. But he’s enthusiastic about Ryan.
“I like a lot of things that he says about the budget,” said Cherry, who worked for the Chicago school board. Ryan’s Medicare plan “might hold down costs,” but he doesn’t think the country is ready for a major overhaul of the healthcare program for seniors.
“Nobody would stand for that. It’s just election talk,” said the Romney supporter. “We’re not ready for that big a change.”
Mike Koons, an Obama supporter who sold used cars for a Chysler dealership in Minnesota before moving to The Villages, is personally opposed to the Ryan plan.
“I don’t believe the voucher program is a good program. As I understand it, they give you a voucher to buy health insurance and you’re at the mercy of the insurance companies,” the 66-year-old said.