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Candidates Court Seniors On Medicare

When GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told conservative activists on Friday that he wants to "save" Medicare by turning it into a program that would give seniors a defined sum to shop for the health plan of their choice, he teed up an issue that has the potential to sway millions of voters, especially seniors, in November.

See also: AARP's 2012 voter education guide.

Three days later, President Barack Obama repeated his own pledge to preserve the program, proposing as part of his 2013 budget plan to reduce spending growth by about $300 billion over 10 years, but keep intact its guaranteed, specified benefits. “What I will not support are efforts to turn Medicare into a voucher,” the president wrote in his budget.

Medicare is likely to play a key role in the 2012 elections—from the presidential race to contests for Congress. While young and middle-age voters are more focused on the economy, “seniors are single-issue voters when it comes to Social Security and Medicare,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, senior vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “They are such an important constituency in elections because they are very reliable voters.”

That’s why every one of the top vote-getters among the GOP presidential contenders, as well as Obama, have cast themselves as protectors of the popular insurance program that provides health care for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans. But in the face of dire warnings about the program’s long-term sustainability, every one of them has also embraced ways to lower costs that have proven radioactive in previous elections.

Republicans won control of the House in 2010 in large part after hammering the president and his party for a health care law that they said cut $500 billion from Medicare over 10 years. That year, the GOP received the largest share of votes from people over the age of 60 in any election since the 1980s, according to Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But those votes could be up for grabs after nearly every House Republican, led by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, voted for a plan last year that built on the health care law’s $500 billion in spending reductions and went much further. The plan, which was not taken up by the Senate, would have eventually abolished traditional fee-for-service Medicare for those currently 55 and younger, and replaced it with a premium support system that would limit federal spending. Currently, Medicare pays whatever it takes to provide beneficiaries with a defined set of benefits.

Romney’s Balancing Act

Democrats ran against the Ryan plan in a special congressional election in a conservative upstate New York district last spring, and scored an upset victory, citing government reports that, under his plan, seniors would pay dramatically more for health care.

Now, with Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich embracing many of Ryan’s ideas, Democrats are hoping to use that as a cudgel once again in November. “Democrats will try very hard to link Romney with Ryan and whatever is negative about it,” said Blendon.

Romney has had a tough balancing act, trying to avoid positions that would alienate swing voters in November while attempting to align himself in this tough primary season with Republican conservatives who embraced Ryan’s plan.

“Ryan is a hero to conservative Republicans,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “They see him as a brave guy who took on a program that is going bankrupt.”

Speaking in South Carolina last month, Romney reiterated support for Ryan’s ideas about how to reduce Medicare spending, calling them “absolutely right on. Give people choice. Let competition exist in our Medicare program.”

Next: Romney's plan would provide a set amount to people to purchase coverage.>>

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