Mitt Romney mentioned the word Medicare only twice Monday in his first Florida stop after picking a running mate, but no one doubts it will be a central part of the campaign fight in this must-win state.
"The president's idea for Medicare was to cut it by $700 billion," Romney said during a morning rally in St. Augustine. "That's not the right answer. We need to make sure we can preserve and protect Medicare."
Later in Miami at El Palacios de Los Jugos, the Republican presidential nominee was greeted by a large, enthusiastic crowd where he gave his standard stump speech — absent a single mention of Medicare or Cuba, a typical talking point in Miami's exile community.
Vice presidential pick Paul Ryan, who advocates fundamentally restructuring Medicare, has introduced the subject of entitlement reform like never before in a presidential race. But the Wisconsin congressman's plan, bashed as "radical" by Democrats, is risky in senior-heavy Florida.
One in five voters is at least 65 years old. More than half are older than 50. And Romney's path to the White House is close to impossible without winning here. Losing the Sunshine State, where recent polls show an essential tie, would require Romney to sweep virtually every other battleground to win the White House.
Republicans have a strategy to limit the risk: accuse President Barack Obama of gutting Medicare to pay for Obamacare.
The tactic could well muddy the waters and minimize backlash against Ryan's controversial Medicare proposal, but it also could boomerang. Ryan essentially voted to keep the same Medicare cuts as those in Obama's health plan.
Under the 2011 and 2012 Ryan plans approved by nearly every House Republican, the Affordable Care Act would have been repealed almost entirely — except when it came to the reductions in future Medicare reimbursement rates to hospitals and drug and insurance companies.
But where Ryan's plan banked the $700 billion over a decade, the president's health plan spent the money on programs to expand access to health care.
Republicans say that's tantamount to "stealing" from old folks.
"We shouldn't cut Medicare to pay for Obamacare. … (Obama) cuts the payments that go to Medicare by $700 billion and he uses that to pay for Obamacare," Romney said in Miami, when asked about charges that Ryan's budget plan is "radical and extreme."
Under the Ryan and Romney plans, current Medicare beneficiaries would be unaffected.
But those who turn 65 in 2022 would face a dramatically different Medicare system. They would get a voucher-like premium-support system that might not keep pace with health care expenses. Independent analysts say it would likely increase future out-of-pocket expenses.
Romney supporters say that increasing the role of private insurers in the health marketplace will increase competition and drive down costs.
"The Democrats were going to try to attack the Republicans based on the Ryan plan anyway. We might as well have its best defender on the ticket," said Republican consultant Sarah Rumpf.
Ryan had been expected to join Romney in Florida on Monday, but instead the Wisconsin Republican was dispatched to Iowa.
Ryan is scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner in Pinellas County on Saturday, and the Romney campaign said he will hold a Central Florida campaign event where "he will highlight President Obama's record of slashing Medicare for current Florida seniors to fund Obamacare."
"Medi-Scare" politics are nothing new in senior-rich Florida.
The Lawton Chiles gubernatorial campaign in 1994 barely beat Jeb Bush after making thousands of phone calls to seniors warning that Bush was no friend of seniors and that his running mate, Tom Feeney, opposed Social Security.
In 2010, Republicans took control of the U.S. House after spending millions on TV ads in Florida and across the country blasting Democratic House members for trimming Medicare under health care reform.
At the same time, Marco Rubio won his U.S. Senate race while openly calling for entitlement reform and cuts for future beneficiaries.
"I can't tell you about the politics of something like the Medicare issue, but I can tell you about the truth. The truth is we simply cannot pretend (that being) on track to become bankrupt is acceptable," Romney told reporters in Miami.
It was Romney's fifth visit to Florida since clinching the GOP nomination, and for the first time he was joined by Gov. Rick Scott.
Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at a stop in Tampa on Monday, relished that milestone.
"Rick Scott couldn't be a worse choice to address seniors' concerns about the Romney-Ryan plan, which ends Medicare as we know it and shreds the safety net for seniors," said the Broward County congresswoman, visiting a South Tampa shoe store with a bus emblazoned with the title: "Romney Economics: The Middle Class Under the Bus."
"Scott's company was involved in what at the time was the largest Medicare fraud scheme in the history of the United States," she said.
Scott said Florida is doing better than other states despite Obama's policies but would have an even brighter future with Republicans in the White House.
"Just think if we had a president and vice president that knew that you build businesses and government doesn't build businesses," Scott said. "Think what this state could do again if we had the right president."
The Miami crowd cheered Romney throughout — especially when he mentioned Rubio, who introduced him and whom Romney mentioned as much as his new running mate.
Judging by his speech in Miami, Romney would prefer to talk less about Medicare and more about the awful economy and high deficits under Obama.
"The president said he would cut the deficit in half," Romney said. "If you think jobs are plentiful, if you think home values are good, if you think your health care needs to be taken over by the government, you know the person to vote for and that's Barack Obama."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.