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 show Mr. Romney anywhere from 11 to 24 points ahead of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Among senior citizens, his support jumps 5 to 6 points higher, to as much as 30 percentage points ahead of Mr. Gingrich.
The other two remaining Republican presidential contenders, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, lag behind, in third and fourth place, respectively.
With young people as his key voter base, Mr. Paul is likely to face an especially tough battle in next week’s showdown in Florida, as polls show him with less support among retirees than in other age groups.
Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has tread carefully when it comes to seniors and their benefits. He has emphasized he will not cut Medicare benefits for those currently enrolled in the program, and while he has mentioned gradually raising the retirement age, he has limited any Social Security cuts to wealthy, future enrollees.
And last week in a debate, 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 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 so far bode well for the Jan. 31 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. And 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. Out of the 18 states where exit polls were conducted, he won the senior vote in only one of them — New Hampshire.
Over the next nine days, Mr. Romney and the other candidates face the challenge of persuading seniors they are equipped to lead the country, while satisfying concerns about the future of Social Security and Medicare.
In a November survey by AARP, the largest senior advocacy organization, voters at least 50 years old who said they intended to vote 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. While more than a quarter had unfavorable feelings about Mr. Gingrich, 18 percent were negative about Mr. Romney.
The two 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 blasted the plan, calling it “right-wing social engineering.”
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.”