MELBOURNE, Fla. — Armed with a study by a former adviser, President Obama is stepping up his attacks on Republican rival Mitt Romney over the future health of Medicare as both campaigns battle for the votes of seniors that could decide the election.
Florida is ground zero for the Medicare debate, as both candidates try to persuade the swing-state's voters that their opponent would wreck the entitlement program. With 29 electoral votes, the Sunshine State is vital to both campaigns' strategies for winning the election.
Seniors are an especially powerful constituency here, and a majority of them voted against Mr. Obama four years ago. The president and Mr. Romney are devoting huge amounts of time and campaign advertising money to gain an edge this time. Mr. Romney and his allies have spent an estimated $45 million on television ads in Florida since the primary season, while the president and his supporters have spent about $25 million.
Making an appeal to seniors Sunday in central Florida, Mr. Obama accused Mr. Romney of planning to gut Medicare and throw more seniors into poverty.
"I want you to know, Florida, I will never turn Medicare into a voucher," the president told about 3,000 people at a campaign rally at the Florida Institute of Technology. "That is going to be part of what's at stake in this election. Their voucher plan for Medicare would bankrupt Medicare."
The president called attention to a study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress that says that under Mr. Romney's plan, a person who retires in 2030 can expect to pay an extra $125,000 over their lifetime for Medicare. A senior Obama campaign official said the voucherlike system for Medicare proposed by Mr. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, "would stick retirees with thousands of dollars in new costs and pad the profits of insurance companies."
The study was conducted by David Cutler, a Harvard professor and who served in the Clinton administration and was Mr. Obama's top health care adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign.
The Romney-Ryan plan would cap the rate of growth in the voucher amounts at 0.5 percentage points above the rate of growth of the gross domestic product. The study said that rate is "much slower than the projected growth in health-care costs."
"The voucher would become increasingly insufficient to cover the costs of insurance, therefore shifting an increasing share of insurance premium costs to seniors," the report said.
Romney pushes back
A spokesman for the Romney campaign said the president is showing signs of "desperation."
"Only one candidate in this race has robbed today's Medicare of $716 billion to pay for Obamacare — Barack Obama," spokesman Ryan Williams said. "He has done nothing to reform Medicare for the long haul and prevent it from going bankrupt, and on his watch, family health care premiums have increased by nearly $2,500. The president's decision to use discredited studies and outright falsehoods to attack Mitt Romney is an admission that he can't talk about his record of crushing the middle class and failing to turn the economy around."
Under the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan, benefits for current recipients wouldn't change. But those who turn 65 in 2022 would face a different program, receiving payments that they could use to either buy regular Medicare or private health insurance. Some analysts warn that insurance premiums that might not keep pace with health care expenses, but the Romney campaign argues that the plan will result in increased competition among insurers to keep down costs.
Florida has the highest percentage of seniors in the nation — 17.3 percent in the 2010 census. They represented 22 percent of the vote in 2008 in Florida.
Mr. Obama captured the state four years ago with just 50.9 percent over Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, but he lost the senior vote here to Mr. McCain. Polls show a tight race again in the electoral-vote swing state.
A balancing act
Medicare presents a potential problem for Mr. Romney, especially in Florida. The Republican's advisers think they have blunted Mr. Obama's attacks over Medicare by responding with criticism that the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," would drain more than $700 billion from the entitlement program.
But every day spent defending his Medicare plan against Mr. Obama's attacks is a day that the Romney campaign would rather devote to the economy and to the challenger's message that Americans are not better off than they were four years ago.
That economic message clearly has an appeal, including with some seniors in Florida. When Mr. Obama stopped at a bakery Sunday in Cocoa, Fla., he ran into retiree Bill Terrell of Jay, Fla., who unabashedly told the president that he is a Romney supporter.
"That's OK," Mr. Obama replied.
Mr. Terrell told reporters traveling with the president that he thinks Mr. Obama "is personable, nice man."
But he added, "I don't think he's going to be able to get the economy going, and Romney will."
The president also had breakfast with two retired couples who rely on Medicare and favor his plan.
Same old song?
So far, there is little in public polls to suggest that the Medicare issue has hurt Mr. Romney in Florida, but Mr. Obama still has nearly two months remaining to drive home his message. One Republican political consultant said Florida's retirees have heard it all before.
"Florida's seniors are used to Democrat scare tactics about Social Security and Medicare going back to 1994 and Lawton Chiles," said Republican strategist Jamie Miller of Sarasota, referring to the Democrat's victory in the governor's race that year over Republican Jeb Bush. "Florida's seniors know that for Social Security and Medicare to survive, we can no longer follow the failed policies of the Obama administration."
But in ads and in the president's two-day campaign swing through central Florida, Mr. Obama's team was telling voters that his Affordable Care Act is needed to preserve Medicare. Campaign officials said 1.8 million Medicare beneficiaries in the state received free preventive-care services last year as a result of the program. In Brevard County, where Mr. Obama spoke Sunday morning at the Florida Institute of Technology, more than 9,000 residents got a discount on their prescription drugs, saving them an average of $575 each last year, the campaign said.
"These guys are out there running these ads about how somehow we're weakening Medicare," Mr. Obama said. "We strengthened Medicare, extended its life for eight years."
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