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Paul Ryan brings mom along for Medicare message in Florida

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor

Rep. Paul Ryan – with his mother at his side – dove into the Medicare issue Saturday before an audience that was made to order: Florida’s Republican-heavy retirement community known as The Villages.

The Republican vice presidential candidate pledged to “preserve and protect” federal health benefits for those at or near retirement, and reform the system for the next generation. But Congressman Ryan was light on the details of a Romney-Ryan reform, choosing instead to attack President Obama.

“Medicare should not be used as a piggy bank for Obamacare,” the youthful Wisconsin Republican told the outdoor crowd, mostly aged 55 and above. “Medicare should be the promise that it made to our current seniors, period end of story.”

Ryan’s focus on seniors reflects their crucial role in the nation’s biggest battleground state, where polls show the presidential race deadlocked. In Florida, 26 percent of the electorate is 65 or older.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Ryan to the ticket a week ago reignited debate over entitlements, particularly Medicare, because of Ryan’s controversial proposal as chairman of the House Budget Committee to turn it into a voucher-like system. Team Romney has clearly decided that the best defense is a good offense, as it pounds hard on the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Obama “raids” Medicare to the tune of $716 billion, and his board of “unelected bureaucrats will lead to denying care for current seniors,” Ryan told the crowd.

The $716 billion figure comes from a July estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that the health-care law slows the growth of Medicare by that amount over the next 10 years. The new Independent Payment Advisory Board is tasked with making Medicare more cost-effective without affecting coverage or quality.

Ryan’s 2011 and 2012 budgets, in fact, also included some $700 billion in reduced Medicare spending, though Ryan says his savings would go toward extending the life of Medicare. In his remarks Saturday, Ryan avoided wonky explanations and instead went for heart-warming imagery surrounding the care of elders.

So suddenly, it’s not Ryan who is throwing Grandma over the cliff – as a liberal interest group’s ad portrayed last year – it’s Obama. And Ryan brought Grandma herself – a.k.a his mother, Betty Douglas – to reinforce his image as a caring son. For good measure, he also talked about his grandmother, and the care he and his mother provided her when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and came to live with them.

“Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma, when we needed it then,” Ryan said. “Medicare is there for my mom while she needs it now. And we have to keep that guarantee.”

Ryan called his 70-something mom a “snowbird” – she spends her winters in the southeastern Florida coastal town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, and the rest of the time in Wisconsin.

For Ryan, appearing in The Villages was a warm bath, aside from a few hecklers along the edges. Some 50 percent of voters here are Republicans, 25 percent are Democrats, and the rest are independents. Before Ryan’s speech, a few blocks away, Villages’ Democrats held a demonstration, holding signs like “Keep your voucher, I’ll keep my Medicare.” An airplane flew overhead pulling a banner that read “Paul Ryan keep your hands off our Medicare.”

So far, polls show Ryan’s choice for the GOP presidential ticket is not hurting Romney in Florida as some Republicans had feared. In fact, seniors are his strongest age group in the state. A SurveyUSA poll for WFLA-TV in Tampa showed 53 percent of registered voters in Florida over age 65 have a favorable opinion of Ryan, versus 43 percent of Florida voters overall. A Rasmussen poll got an almost identical result: 43 percent of the Florida electorate sees him favorably, as do 54 percent of Florida seniors.

“That was smart for Ryan to debut in Florida at The Villages,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “They will give him a lot of confidence.”

Across the state, the airwaves are already awash with ads from both sides trying to scare voters into thinking the other guy will destroy the health care system.

Looking at the senior vote statewide, Ms. MacManus predicts it will be “very divided.” But, she adds, seniors tend to come back to their “home party” on Election Day. “They see the ads going back and forth, and in the end, they say, ‘I’ll believe my guy.’ ”

She also points out that seniors in Florida, many of whom have moved here from out of state, tend to be wealthier, healthier, and better educated than seniors in other parts of the country.

At the Villages, many in the crowd knew that Romney and Ryan weren’t proposing changes to Medicare that would affect them. “Mediscare” tactics, the GOP term for Obama’s message, wouldn’t work here, they said.

“I’m in complete agreement with everything Paul Ryan said,” said Denis Pecjak, a retired builder who lives here. “It’s nice to see someone from the younger generation who can think ahead.”

Mr. Pecjak doesn’t buy the Democratic argument that the Ryan plan for Medicare would eventually underfund the system and leave seniors paying for more and more of their care themselves.

Eve Eekhof, another Villager, echoed the idea that the Ryan model would add longevity to the system, not kill it. “I want it to be there for our kids and grandkids.”

But not everyone was sold. “My fear is for the 50-year-olds who have worked and paid into the system,” says Bob Weigel, who owns a home here but still votes in Ohio, another crucial battleground state. “Are they going to be thrown under the bus?”

Mr. Weigel came out of the Ryan event still undecided on his vote.

“I’m a lot higher on Romney than I am on Ryan,” he says. And even though he voted for John McCain four years ago, he says he could go for Obama this time.