It's not that the radio host failed to press Mike Haridopolos. Over and over the Republican U.S. Senate candidate was asked whether he supports the GOP plan to restructure Medicare.
"Again, I don't have all the information to make that decision yet,'' Haridopolos limply responded.
"How could you possibly not have all that information; you're running for Senate?'' asked "Ray Junior," the exasperated host in St. Augustine.
"Ray, I thought you wanted to talk about what we had accomplished, not about a hypothetical," said Haridopolos, the Florida Senate president, referring to the recent session.
The dodging went on for more than four minutes. "Okay, get him off my phone," the host finally declared. "I don't want anything to do with this guy. Get rid of him."
Medicare: big, complicated, endangered — and the latest proving ground for Republican candidates.
Haridopolos is hardly the only one to be tripped up. Two weeks earlier, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took so much heat for deeming U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to shift Medicare to private insurers "right-wing social engineering" that he retracted the comment and apologized the next day. His campaign has sputtered ever since.
Democrats are offering few long-term solutions of their own but are content to sit back as the conservative base of the GOP pushes to make the Ryan plan a fundamental litmus test just as more pragmatic Republicans worry it will be toxic in the 2012 general election.
"If Republicans are going to make their guys walk that plank, it could be dangerous," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist who thinks the party needs to focus more on immediate issues like jobs, wages and the housing market.
Medicare is only the latest gut-check for Republican candidates. The economic stimulus, health care reform and immigration are all issues that have demanded strict loyalty and made the GOP a more conservative, more disciplined machine.
Swing voters favored their message in 2010, handing Republicans control of the House, and if the economy continues to struggle as the 2012 election approaches, the party could take over the Senate and potentially the White House.
But Ryan's deficit-cutting plan is shaping up as particularly problematic. It could become what health care was for Democrats in 2010, a defining issue with great political peril.
The potency was evident in western New York last month when Democrats won a safe Republican congressional seat after the race turned suddenly ferocious on the Medicare vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ryan's proposal would not affect people 55 and older, but those who reach 65 in 10 years would see traditional Medicare replaced with "premium support" payments to subsidize the purchase of private insurance. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it would lead to seniors paying substantially more for health coverage than under the current system.
• • •
Republicans say something has to be done to save Medicare and charge Democrats with failing to lead.
But boldness and politics require the right timing. Democrats controlled Congress and the White House when they passed health care. In contrast, Republicans currently hold only the House; the Ryan budget was dead on the day it was introduced.
"Tossing the plan on the table with little groundwork, with the public not prepped for the fight, amounted to a political self-indulgence that the GOP could not afford, exposing GOP members to attack and handing Democrats an issue when they really didn't have one before," political analyst Charlie Cook wrote in the National Journal.
Now Democrats are issuing waves of attacks in congressional districts across the country, via e-mail and recorded phone calls to voters. Their allies have paid for TV commercials, including one timed for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's visit last month to South Carolina. It portrayed him as stuck between the ideological and pragmatic divide in his party over the issue. Romney had said he was on the "same page" as Ryan, leaving some wiggle room.
Congressional Democrats such as Ted Deutch of South Florida have mailed newsletters to voters' homes detailing the proposal. "When it comes to your Medicare, a coupon just won't cut it," it states. Other Democrats are sending their own.
More than a few House Republicans worry about implications next November and are trying to avoid the topic and hoping it fades. But for now the party is presenting a unified public face.
"I know. The Democrats know. The White House knows. The situation has to be addressed," said U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge. "I'll take my shots, I'll take my licks. But somebody has to have the courage to stop this country from going bankrupt."
To further exploit the issue, Senate Democrats staged a May 25 vote on the Ryan plan knowing it would fail. Most Republicans voted with their House counterparts, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. A handful of moderate Republicans voted no, however, underlining the risk.
"We have to hire Don Draper or someone else in the advertising business to sell ourselves better than we are ourselves," said David Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.
"If we allow the Democrats to continue with the 'push-grandmother-off-the-cliff' analogies and don't have a reasoned response, then it becomes a very dominant issue."
Johnson and others say there is still time to frame the problem by showing that Medicare cannot continue on its current pace without fundamental changes.
"Fortunately," said Posey, "Democrats started lying early."
The issue could be particularly potent in Florida, where more than 17 percent of people are older than 65. Seniors make up a disproportionately large segment of the electorate, and there are waves of people nearing retirement.
"We have a huge baby boomer population," said Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "This is a place where in the 1980s and '90s, people moved in droves because the economy was cranking."
• • •
Nowhere is the Medicare litmus test clearer than in Florida's Republican U.S. Senate primary where ostensible frontrunner Haridopolos finally clarified last week he could not support the Ryan plan unless it was "amended to provide greater protections for seniors."
Seconds after that statement, Republican rival Adam Hasner's campaign fired off an e-mail: "The Day Mike's Campaign Died."
Hasner, a former state House majority leader from Boca Raton, is ready to make his unequivocal support for Ryan's controversial proposal a central part of his campaign.
"It's about who has the courage to make the kinds of tough decisions that are going to be necessary to save our country," Hasner said.
George LeMieux, the other major Republican vying to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, said he prefers his own vague deficit reduction proposal, but also would have voted for Ryan's.
"Look, if I were in the Senate last week when they voted on this thing, having the choice between doing nothing and letting Medicare fail in the next 10 years, I would have voted for the proposal,'' LeMieux said. "We're not going to save this country from financial disaster unless people start entertaining serious proposals."
Haridopolos' opposition to the plan means he faces real risks in the primary but would emerge cleaner in the general election (although he wrote a book on conservative issues in 1998 that called for privatizing Medicare).
"I don't envy the guy," Schale said. "The Republican activist has become so extreme, so conservative, that in order to win the primary you have to run to a place where I'm not sure the electorate is. I think Haridopolos has rightfully come to the conclusion that people in his party are misreading what was said in 2010."
• • •
And what about Democrats?
Without offering concrete long-term proposals themselves, Democrats risk looking spineless and unwilling to tackle tough problems.
"Where is President Obama's plan on Medicare? Where's his plan?" Rubio demanded in an appearance on Fox News.
Democrats say their plan to save Medicare is Medicare itself, preventing it from going to a voucher system. Party leaders point to the new health care law, which cut $550 billion by slowing increases in payments to hospitals and nursing homes and raising Medicare hospital taxes for high earners, among other measures. Democrats say it added 12 years of solvency to Medicare, though new government estimates put it at eight years, to 2024.
"That's a pretty good start," Nelson said.
Still, he acknowledged a long-term solution is needed and said he was optimistic a bipartisan plan would emerge amid negotiations to cut the budget and raise the amount the government can borrow, the so-called debt ceiling. Nelson said he'll push for more prescription drug cost savings.
Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith said he expects the Ryan plan will be long abandoned by the heat of the 2012 election and the bipartisan package will be in its place.
"The American people will accept this solution when they feel like it's shared sacrifice that's across the board,'' Smith said, adding the cuts and additional revenue have to be on the table.
But he predicts the political ripples will extend until 2012: "The problem for Republicans with the Ryan plan is not its immediate budget impact, but it was a very direct statement saying, 'We are willing to and ready to walk away from Medicare as we know it.' That is so radical that it's going to be wrapped around everybody's neck who voted for it no matter what they do."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.