THE VILLAGES — People hoping the addition of House budget chief Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket would lead to a serious and substantive debate about entitlement reform may be disappointed.
Based on Ryan's first campaign stop in senior-rich Florida on Saturday, it looks increasingly like the debate will be typical "Medi-scare" politics, with both sides accusing the other of gutting Medicare or wanting to.
"The president raids $716 billion from the Medicare program to pay for the Obamacare program," Ryan, 42, said to boos from thousands of supporters in this sprawling retirement community before heading to Pinellas County for a private fundraiser.
"In addition to that he puts a board of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of Medicare who are required to cut Medicare in ways that will lead to denied care for current seniors," he said, referring to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that gives an independent panel authority to rein in Medicare spending if the program grows too fast.
Ryan voted in support of essentially the same $700 billion in reductions to Medicare growth, but on Saturday he offered few specifics about his own proposal or Mitt Romney's.
"(Ryan) didn't say that if he had his way, Medicare would be bankrupt in just four years, or that he would give $150 billion taxpayer dollars back to private insurance companies, which raises costs for everyone," said Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner. "He didn't say that they'd turn Medicare into a voucher system, ending the Medicare guarantee and raising costs by $6,400 a year for seniors. And he certainly didn't say that they'd do it all to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. But those are the facts, and the 'substantive' debate he claims they want requires Romney and Ryan to be honest about them."
Romney needs to win over seniors comfortably to carry must-win Florida, and some Republicans worry that Ryan's sweeping proposal for Medicare reform for future beneficiaries could hurt him. So the Romney campaign is aggressively attacking President Barack Obama for cutting future growth in Medicare spending.
In the week since Ryan joined the ticket and campaigned in Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and Wisconsin, entitlements have overtaken the economy as the dominant issue of the 2012 campaign. Much of his 21-minute Florida speech hailed Romney, but Ryan spent more time on Medicare than at any other event since Romney picked him.
The Wisconsin Republican got personal in assuring Floridians he's no enemy of Medicare and chose a picture-perfect setting: the Villages, a massive 55-and-older community about 50 miles northwest of Orlando, and one of the biggest Republican strongholds in Florida. The town square was filled with white-haired men and women waving American flags and cheering as Ryan touted his and Romney's commitment to Medicare in a state where nearly 3.4 million annually receive $25.2 billion in Medicare services.
"Say hi to my mom, Betty," he said, introducing his 78-year-old mother, a part-time Broward County resident.
"When I think about Medicare, it's not just a program. It's not just a bunch of numbers. It's what my mom relies on. It's what my grandma had," Ryan said, recounting how his grandmother moved in with him and his mother when he was in high school after she developed advanced Alzheimer's disease.
"Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma who needed it then, and Medicare is there for my mom while she needs it now. And we have to keep that guarantee," he said.
Behind him hung a big sign: "Protect & Strengthen MEDICARE."
Above him circled a single-engine plane with a banner: "Paul Ryan keep your hands off our Medicare."
The Medicare trust fund for inpatient care is projected to run out of money by 2024. It would run out in 2016 if the Affordable Care Act reductions criticized by Ryan and Romney were restored. Romney has pledged to repeal "Obamacare" and restore the cuts to Medicare, but the Congressional Budget Office estimated repealing the health care law would raise the deficit by $109 billion over 10 years.
"We want this debate, we need this debate, and we're going to win this debate," said Ryan, who supports restructuring Medicare so that future beneficiaries receive a fixed amount of money from the government to buy health coverage.
"President Obama and other politicians like him in Washington have become more focused on their next election than they have on the next generation," he said. "Not us. We're not going to do that. We will lead."
A fire marshal estimated 10,000 people attended the event, though the crowd appeared smaller. Four years ago, newly minted vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to the Villages after the Republican National Convention, drawing a crowd estimated at 25,000 to 60,000.
The Republicans holding anti-Obama signs and sipping breakfast-hour cocktails Saturday consistently said they applauded Ryan's talk about entitlement reform, and noted that it did not affect anyone 55 or older.
"As long as they explain it, they'll be fine," said Dave Hotchkiss, a retiree from Connecticut.
People like that Ryan doesn't mince words, he added.
"Everyone else doesn't face the issues. They just talk around them," he said.
People know Medicare has to be fixed, said his wife, Elise Hotchkiss. "It can't just continue as it is."
After the Villages, Ryan's SUV took him and his mother two hours south to the Club at Treasure Island, where people paid between $2,500 to $50,000 to attend a Romney-Ryan private fundraiser that raised an estimated $1 million.
About 100 people stood outside in the drizzle and midafternoon heat, evenly split between Romney supporters and opponents.
"Yay, yay, that's him, he waved right at me!" said Bette LaPlatney, a Treasure Island resident and Romney supporter. "He's a good guy."
State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said the people pulling into the fundraiser in luxury cars "are the big names, but they also won't be the folks affected by his plan to cut Medicare."
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus introduced Ryan at the fundraiser. Ryan touted Romney's record of leadership in Massachusetts and at the Salt Lake City Olympics, and suggested another Obama term would lead America to become more like Europe.
"We can dodge the European bullet, but our opportunity is beginning to shrink," he said. "Now is the moment to make sure we do what we need to do to get us back on growth, back on opportunity."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]