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Since then, they’ve moved closer together. 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.

But 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.”

While 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 SS and Medicare and do so in a way that reassures them,” he said.

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

Not even Mr. Paul, known for his constant calls to slash federal spending drastically, has called for immediate cuts to Social Security, saying benefits for current beneficiaries should be preserved — although he does want to do away with the system in the long term.

But as with most voters, retirees typically care more about their overall impression of candidates than smaller distinctions between the candidates’ 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.”