- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2012

Needing to stanch the bleeding after South Carolina, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney couldn’t ask for a better state than Florida, which holds the next GOP primary and happens to have a lot of elderly voters — among whom Mr. Romney does very well.

The most recent Florida polls give Mr. Romney a lead of anywhere from 11 to 24 percentage points over Newt Gingrich. But among senior citizens, the former Massachusetts governor does better still, running as much as 30 points ahead of Mr. Gingrich in the one state where seniors make up a full third of the Republican primary electorate.

That edge couldn’t come at a better time for Mr. Romney, whose air of inevitability crumbled after Mr. Gingrich crushed him Saturday in the South Carolina primary, winning 40 percent of the vote to Mr. Romney’s 28 percent.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Gingrich said he will argue to Florida, where voters go to the polls Jan. 31, that he is a Ronald Reagan revolutionary while Mr. Romney is an establishment candidate too tied to the status quo of power.

“I think that’s a pretty clear contrast, and I think Floridians would like somebody who speaks for them to Washington, not somebody who speaks to the establishment,” the former House speaker said.

Mr. Romney predicted that, as scrutiny of the candidates intensifies, he will come out ahead.

“I think the American people want a chance to see the candidates and understand something about their character. And, you know, I hope that I wear well in that process,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”

Whatever their messages, they’ll have to spend more time talking specifically to seniors, who in 2008 made up a higher percentage of the Florida GOP primary vote than any other state, according to exit polling.

That presents a particular challenge for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, one of the other candidates, whose key support group is young voters. Mr. Paul is focusing on later contests such as Nevada.

Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, though, all plan to make stands in Florida.

Mr. Romney has tread carefully when it comes to seniors and their benefits. He has emphasized that he will not cut Medicare benefits for those currently enrolled in the program. Although he has mentioned gradually raising the retirement age, he has limited any Social Security cuts to wealthy, future enrollees.

In a debate last week, Mr. Romney blasted President Obama for cutting Medicare to help pay for his 2010 health care overhaul.

It’s a tactic that seems to be paying off, said Max Richtman, president of the Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“I think Romney is trying to assure current beneficiaries he would not impact them, that it would be prospective,” Mr. Richtman said. “I have a feeling that’s why he’s less scary than some of the others.”

Mr. Romney’s performance bodes well for the Sunshine State contest. He easily won the senior vote in Iowa, collecting a third of those 65 and older, even though he came in a close second overall to Mr. Santorum. In New Hampshire, he won 42 percent of those 65 and older en route to a victory.

He didn’t fare nearly as well in 2008. Of the 18 states where exit polls were conducted, he won the senior vote in only one: New Hampshire.

Over the next nine days, Mr. Romney and the other candidates face the challenge of convincing seniors that they are equipped to lead the country while satisfying concerns about the future of Social Security and Medicare.

In a November survey by the AARP, the largest senior advocacy organization, voters 50 and older who said they intended to participate in the primary opposed cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits by a 2-to-1 margin. For Hispanic primary voters, the opposition jumped to 4-to-1.

“Any Republican candidate advancing cuts to these programs puts their vote at risk,” the survey concluded.

Survey respondents also felt more positively toward Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich, with 74 percent saying they felt favorably about him, compared with 64 percent for Mr. Gingrich. More than a quarter had unfavorable feelings about Mr. Gingrich, and 18 percent were negative about Mr. Romney.

The two candidates seemed to hold divergent views on how to reform Medicare last spring, when Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, released a budget that proposed to transform Medicare into a voucher system in which seniors would purchase coverage from private insurers. Mr. Romney expressed cautious support for the plan while saying he would like to come up with his own, while Mr. Gingrich criticized the plan as “right-wing social engineering.”

Since then, their stances have moved closer. Both applauded Mr. Ryan when he revised his plan last month to allow seniors the option of using vouchers or remaining in traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

On Social Security, Mr. Gingrich is advocating more drastic change, saying he wants to allow younger Americans to put a portion of their contributions into private accounts.

“You decide when you want to retire; you decide how much you want to retire, if you want to be half-retired, half-working,” he told voters while stumping in South Carolina on Wednesday. “You eliminate all the Mickey Mouse junk by which Washington bureaucrats and politicians try to control our lives.”

Although the AARP doesn’t endorse candidates, interim Florida state director Jeff Johnson said the group is working to educate its members on what the candidates would do with the entitlement programs.

“I think every candidate has to be careful how they talk about Social Security and Medicare and do so in a way that reassures them,” he said.

Mr. Santorum hasn’t shied away from calling for immediate cuts to Social Security. He told a crowd in New Hampshire that lawmakers can’t wait for 10 years to cut benefits and made himself the only one of the four candidates to assume the potentially risky position.

Not even Mr. Paul, known for his constant calls to slash federal spending, has called for immediate cuts to Social Security. He said benefits for current recipients should be preserved, although he proposes eliminating the system in the long term.

As with other voters, retirees typically care more about their overall impressions of candidates than smaller distinctions among their positions, Mr. Johnson said.

“The distinctions of the policy proposals matter a lot, obviously,” he said. “But to most voters, what they’re going to listen for is a commitment to the programs.”

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