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NEW MATH: OLD DEBTS // GOP taking Medicare message to the people

U.S. Rep. Dan Miller moved across the stage, walked to his right and stepped in front of the overhead projector. His shadow grew to 20 feet, blocking part of his Medicare message about "Keeping the Commitment."

He was trying to answer the third question at a forum with more than 400 seniors. And it wasn't going well for the Bradenton congressman, the man House Speaker Newt Gingrich has chosen to help refine the GOP's public relations battle plan on Medicare.

Less than 30 minutes into the first of three meetings with seniors and health professionals this week, Miller already faced a few groans, a glitch in his portable microphone that threatened to blow out eardrums and testy people like Morris Langman, 72, of Venice.

"We are hearing a lot about choice," Langman said, his voice rising Monday at the Venice Community Center. "That is sheer demagogy!"

Miller tried to answer, using statements from the same vein he tapped continuously at the forums here and in Bradenton. Medicare is in danger of bankruptcy. We are improving the program. We are spending more money, giving you more choice.

"Only in Washington can an increase in spending be called a cut," he said more than once.

After Langman sat down, with a disgusted wave of his hand at Miller, another questioner took the microphone.

"I admire your courage to stand up there," the man said _ then proceeded to question politicians' motives, saying they had become puppets to special interests.

Miller smiled. And pressed on.

As Congress faces the final weeks of debate on Medicare and the budget, Miller became one of the first GOP representatives to test the waters in his home district. His trip Monday and Tuesday came a few days after House Republicans officially released the framework of their plan to reduce Medicare spending by $270-billion in the next seven years.

It fell to Miller because he is chairman of the Communications Task Force on Medicare, and because his district from Sun City Center to Port Charlotte includes one of the largest percentages of people older than 65 in the nation.

"I'm trying to go to the hardest audience," Miller said. At times he got his wish.

Miller said he is returning to Washington today and will brief colleagues. And although he wouldn't say it was fun to be called everything from a crook to a liar to a demagogue, Miller said he found the events helpful.

"Some people obviously came to the meetings with an agenda and were very vocal," Miller said after a meeting with health care executives and physicians at Manatee Memorial Hospital. "We probably need to explain some things better to people, especially about waste and fraud and the value of the tax cut."

It is hard to capture the sense of any group from public forums. Some are dominated by people who are comfortable speaking in front of large groups. Others are orchestrated by friends _ or enemies _ of the person holding it.

The one in Venice was nasty. A forum for health professionals was more polite than expected and ended a half-hour early.

But from comments and interviews, it appears seniors are worried about the proposal and want more details about the new options they will be offered. Even those who said they were loyal Republicans didn't sound convinced.

Others opposed the plan because they didn't believe the cuts were to save Medicare, but to finance a tax cut _ the message Democrats have hammered in recent weeks. Many wanted the budget-balancing spread to other places _ foreign aid, a small part of the national budget compared with Medicare, was a favorite target.

"You people have been less than truthful in dealing with senior citizens," Stan Godleski, a former state president of the American Association of Retired Persons, told Miller Tuesday in Bradenton. "We want you to be fair with us, to be honest with us."

Charles H. Levy, 82, a retired physician in Bradenton, told Miller he was "penalizing Medicare recipients only and not the rest of the population."

Miller was deft at answering questions. He tried to stay "on message," as they said in political circles, repeating his points about choice and improvement and increased spending even as people asked about illegal immigration, gun control and the environment.

"This isn't a perfect plan," he said. "We will have time to refine it before a final vote," which he predicted for mid-November.

It is a message the GOP crafted over the summer with the help of Republican pollsters, including one who traveled this week with Miller. The polling company angered some advocates earlier this year when its strategy memo was leaked, containing statements about "pack-oriented" seniors who were "very susceptible" to being led.

Miller said Tuesday he has heard from a lot from his constituents. The message about the need to reform Medicare is reaching people, even if a vocal minority oppose it.

It is true that many people approached Miller after the forums, offering support, encouragement and kind words about his ailing mother.

"I want you to know there is a silent majority that's behind you," one man told Miller after Tuesday's meeting in Freedom Village.

What was his name?

He wouldn't say. "I don't trust the press."

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