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But that debate hasn't really happened. In his hard-edged Republican Convention speech, for instance, Ryan assaulted Obama's record but boiled down his proposal to avert a national fiscal crisis to platitudes: "A Romney-Ryan Administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom's generation, for my generation and for my kids and yours," Ryan said. He made no mention of reforming the program to limit its costs. Instead, both Romney and Ryan have gone on the attack, portraying Obama as the real enemy of Medicare. "The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it," Ryan said in Tampa. Likewise, Romney's only mention of the program at the convention was a similar shot at Obama's Affordable Care Act. There's sound political logic here: Republican attacks on Obamacare's $716 billion in cuts to Medicare providers played a starring role in the GOP's 2010 midterm-election romp. Ryan neglects to mention that his own budget proposal includes those same cuts, leading to Democratic charges of hypocrisy. "We got out ahead on it," says a Romney campaign aide. "The Obama campaign was on the defensive."
It wasn't long before Democrats were back on the offensive. In Charlotte, Bill Clinton blasted the Romney-Ryan approach as "the end of Medicare as we know it." And the Obama campaign has aired ads in Florida, Ohio and other swing states explaining that the "Ryan Plan" will raise costs for seniors; the ad closes with a shot of an elderly woman in her bathrobe reading medical bills with dismay.
So far, Democrats have kept the upper hand. A late-September survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that voters in Ohio, Virginia and Florida prefer Obama's Medicare position to the Romney-Ryan reforms by wide margins. In Florida, Obama has 65% support on the issue. Other polling has shown Obama gaining among seniors since Ryan entered the campaign as the issue of health care rises in importance to voters. "Since the conventions, Democrats have spent a lot of money to tell people what the Ryan plan is and how it works," Blendon notes. But it is also true that other polling has shown a murkier picture, with the candidates virtually tied on who would best handle Medicare policy. Republicans say that anything less than a commanding lead for Obama on an issue on which Democrats traditionally enjoy an advantage amounts to a win for the GOP.
Nor have Romney and Ryan entirely dodged the details of their Medicare plan. In the first debate, Romney unapologetically defended Ryan's Medicare vision as an effort to introduce competition into the program--but only after Obama raised the point (and Ryan's name) first. In a Sept. 21 speech to the AARP, much of which was devoted to attacking Obamacare, Ryan touted his plan as "empower[ing] future seniors to choose the coverage that works best for them," with a financial support system "designed to guarantee that seniors can always afford Medicare, no exceptions." But he offered no estimate of his plan's savings or how much more seniors who turn down traditional Medicare might have to pay.