WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama in speeches and in TV advertising Tuesday of cutting Medicare "to pay for Obamacare," launching a strong counterattack to Democratic charges that he and running mate Paul Ryan would radically remake the popular health care program that serves tens of millions of seniors.
The charge drew a blistering response from Obama's campaign, which labeled the ad dishonest and hypocritical.
Obama "has taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund. He's raided that trust fund," Romney said at a campaign stop in Beallsville, Ohio, as he neared the end of a multistate bus trip punctuated by his weekend selection of a ticket mate.
"And you know what he did with it? He's used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky, unproven, federal takeover of health care. And if I'm president of the United States, we're putting the $716 billion back," he said.
Aides said a commercial containing the same allegation would begin airing in several battleground states, although they declined to provide details.
In a campaign without summer doldrums, the rival sets of ticket mates campaigned in a half-dozen of the most hotly contested states, in settings as diverse as a coal mine in Ohio (Romney); a wind farm in Iowa (Obama) and a casino in Nevada (Ryan.) Vice President Joe Biden stumped in Virginia.
The speeches on Tuesday indicated a major struggle is building over Medicare.
Romney's criticism on that subject appeared an attempt to gain some measure of control over an issue likely to play a significant role in the outcome of the election. Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa are among the top five states in the country in the percentage of people 65 and older, and all three are battleground states.
In a rebuttal issued shortly after the Romney TV ad was released, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith said the president's health care law did not "cut a single guaranteed Medicare benefit, and Mitt Romney embraced the very same savings when he promised he'd sign Paul Ryan's budget. … The truth is that the Romney-Ryan budget would end Medicare as we know it."
In the days leading to Ryan's selection, opinion polls generally showed a close race. Romney's pick for a running mate drew enthusiastic support from conservatives pleased that he had tapped a lawmaker known as an intellectual leader of the effort to rein in big government benefit programs and reduce future deficits.
But Democrats, too, said they were happy with the selection. They have quickly set out to draw attention to Ryan's plans, which contain deep cuts in projected spending in social programs as well as changes to Medicare for future retirees.
Polling generally shows that the public places more trust in Democrats' ability to handle Medicare than they do Republicans, and that people also generally oppose plans to replace the current program with one in which future seniors receive a fixed amount of money from the government to be used to purchase health coverage.
At the same time, polling shows the public strongly believes the financial security of Medicare as well as Social Security must be guaranteed for the long term, and government reports for years have warned of a looming shortfall if something isn't done to change course.
Ryan and Romney have both cited a desire to right the program's finances as a motive for their plans.
Moreover, Romney's attack during the day suggests he hopes to overcome a generic Republican disadvantage on the issue by telling voters that Obama has cut spending for a program that is overwhelmingly popular, and put the money toward one that is controversial.
Obama and Romney also clashed Tuesday over energy policy. The president taunted his challenger for opposing an extension of a tax break for wind production, quoting him as once having said, "You can't drive a car with a windmill on it."
Government estimates say that more than 6,000 jobs statewide and 20 percent of Iowa's electricity needs come from wind power, and the state's senior GOP leaders all support renewing an extension of a wind tax credit that Romney opposes.
Romney sounded eager to challenge Obama's energy policy as he campaigned in coal country in southeastern Ohio. Accusing the president of waging a war on coal, he said Obama favors production of energy that comes only "from above the ground," a reference to wind power and other alternative sources. "I'm for all of the above whether it comes from above the ground or below the ground," he said.