THE VILLAGES, Fla. — Diving deeper into the Medicare fight, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul D. Ryan warned seniors Saturday that a key cost-control measure in President Obama's healthcare law would lead to rationing of their medical care.
Ryan made the charge during a campaign speech at the largest retirement development in Florida, a state with the biggest proportion of seniors in the country and the most electoral votes of any 2012 battleground. The state is considered a must-win for Mitt Romney, and politicians in both parties say the Medicare debate could sway the outcome.
The Republican ticket launched its Medicare offensive last week in an effort to preempt an issue that historically favors Democrats. Despite nervousness from some GOP strategists, who worry that the fallout could hit down-ballot Republican candidates, the Wisconsin congressman's remarks opened a fresh line of attack.
Standing in front of a new Romney campaign banner that read "Protect & strengthen Medicare," Ryan pressed his case for overhauling the healthcare program for seniors and the disabled. Romney and Ryan want to give future seniors the option of using a government subsidy to shop for private health insurance, instead of enrolling in the traditional government program. Obama has said the voucher plan could cost seniors $6,400 a year.
Ryan, joined onstage by his 78-year-old mother, said the president's 2010 healthcare law threatens the healthcare of current seniors because it authorizes the creation of a panel of experts with authority to recommend reductions in out-of-control Medicare spending.
Obama "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," said Ryan, 42, who was carrying the day's public campaign duties while Romney attended private fundraising events on the Massachusetts vacation retreats of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod.
Ryan said that if elected, he and Romney "will restore the promise of this program, and we will make sure that this board of bureaucrats will not mess with my mom's healthcare or your mom's healthcare."
The presidentially appointed Independent Payment Advisory Board would act if Medicare spending exceeded pre-set targets. Its recommendations would take effect automatically unless overridden by Congress. The White House insists the board is legally prohibited from making recommendations that would ration care. But Republicans, who are vowing to repeal the law, have said rationing would be the practical effect.
Romney and Ryan have not offered specifics for restraining the growth of Medicare spending. Ryan contended in his speech that market competition — with 50 million seniors shopping for care — would keep costs in check.
One week into his vice presidential campaign, Ryan made his initial visit to Florida, site of this month's Republican nominating convention. The rally took place at The Villages, a hotbed of Republican retirees, where residents were encouraged to arrive in their golf carts for the steamy morning event.
Hundreds of supporters jammed into one of the development's "town squares," where free entertainment and nightly happy-hour dances helped earn this community of 60,000 seniors a somewhat double-edged reputation as the Disney World of the Cialis set. Open-air bars at the Ryan event began pouring before 8 a.m., with 14-ounce margaritas going for $2.75. A Chick-fil-A stand did a brisker business, however.
Privately held and tightly controlled, The Villages retirement complex is a regular campaign stop for GOP candidates. At a rally here in January, Romney was moved to song, and his slightly off-key rendition of "America the Beautiful" became the soundtrack of an Obama attack ad against him.
Billionaire developer H. Gary Morse, whose family built The Villages on more than 30 square miles of farmland, is a co-chairman of Romney's Florida finance committee. Along with family members and his corporation, Morse has given more than $1 million to the Romney campaign and a "super PAC" supporting him.
At the rally, Ryan introduced his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, who winters in South Florida and was making her campaign debut. "This is my mom, Betty. She's why I'm here. She and her grandkids are why I'm here," he said.
Offering new autobiographical details from the period around his father's death in 1986, when Ryan was 16, he said his grandmother had then moved in with him and his mother.
She had advanced Alzheimer's. My mom and I were her two primary caregivers," he said. "You learn a lot about life. You learn a lot about your elderly, seniors, in your family."
He said Medicare "was there for our family, for my grandma, when we needed it then, and Medicare is there for my mom while she needs it now — and we need to keep that guarantee."
After her husband's death, Ryan's mother, who later remarried, went back to college and started an interior decorating business with a few employees. "We were taking care of my grandma at the time. She was going to school, and then she started this small business," he said.
Then, turning to his mother, Ryan lobbed a salvo at Obama, to the delight of the partisan crowd.
"Mom, Mom, I am proud of you for going out, getting another degree. I'm proud of you, for the small business that you created, and Mom, you did build that!" he said, in a dig at the president, who opened himself to Republican criticism when he told a campaign audience in Virginia that small business owners did not build their companies by themselves.
Obama, meanwhile, used one of Ryan's old budget proposals to again raise the issue of Romney's taxes during a campaign visit to another East Coast swing state.
Ryan had once suggested a plan "that would let Gov. Romney pay less than 1% in taxes each year," Obama told a Windham, N.H. rally. "They have tried to sell us this trickle-down snake oil before."
Ryan did propose eliminating capital gains taxes, but Romney opposed the idea during the Republican primaries last winter.
Christi Parsons in Windham, N.H., contributed to this report.