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Bill Clinton focuses on Medicare in speech for Obama in Florida

Former President Clinton greets the crowd after a campaign speech on behalf of President Obama at Florida International University in Miami.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

MIAMI — Launching a two-day campaign swing in senior-heavy Florida, former President Clinton pushed back Tuesday against what he described as Republican scare tactics over healthcare programs for older Americans — then provided his own frightening predictions about what would happen to seniors if Mitt Romney became president.

Clinton said the Republican nominee was misleading voters by arguing that President Obama’s healthcare overhaul “robbed Medicare of $716 billion,” noting that the money would mainly be cut from future payments to hospitals and insurance companies, not beneficiaries. The issue has particular resonance in this state, which has the largest proportion of over-65 voters in the country.

“A lot of Republicans got elected to Congress peddling that old dog. It’s a mangy old dog. It’s not true,” Clinton told an arena crowd of 2,000 at Florida International University, in his first post-convention appearance designed to boost Obama’s chances. He said that “countless thousands” of seniors had voted against Democrats in 2010 because “they were given misinformation” about their Medicare votes.

“The first time they did that it was their fault. If we let it happen again it is our fault, and we should not let them do it,” Clinton said.

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He said that if Romney were elected and followed through on his pledge to repeal the healthcare law, Medicare and seniors would pay $600 a year more for prescription drugs — part of the Obama plan moved money from insurance companies and hospitals and into coverage for medicine — and the Medicare trust fund would “go broke” in 2016, eight years earlier than under the Obama program.

The Republicans will “either have to change Medicare as we know it, even eight years earlier than they promised to, or take more money away from education, not to pay for more seniors on Medicare but to pay for providers,” Clinton said.

His appearance in this biggest swing state marked a return to campaigning for the 66-year-old former president. In many respects, it was the same old voluble Clinton. He repeated many of the themes from his speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. And despite stating near the outset that he would do so “in much less time,” his remarks still clocked in at 42 minutes (he spoke for 48 last week).

Still, Clinton stepped onstage at 6 o’clock sharp, perfect for local TV newscasts in the vast media market of South Florida, a Democratic stronghold. In that respect, his appearance was designed to fulfill half of his mission in the state: encouraging Floridians to register and then turn out to vote. The other half — persuading undecided voters — may fit better into his scheduled appearance Wednesday in Orlando, part of the Interstate 4 corridor that contains a larger portion of independent voters.

In recognition of the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, Clinton was introduced by Ignatius “Iggy” Carol, a local firefighter and paramedic. And he recalled where he and members of his family were that day in 2001, taking the opportunity to mention wife Hillary Rodham Clinton’s service at the time as a senator from New York, which drew applause.

But his defense of Obama’s programs to aid higher education, including federal grants and loans, generated by far the most sustained and enthusiastic response.

Many of those in attendance are commuter students at Florida International, a public university on the west side of Miami, who weren’t even in their teens when he left office. For Valerie Perez, a 23-year-old from Homestead, just south of here, her main connection was to Obama, whose summer Pell grant program directly benefited her. “I was $1,000 richer,” she said.

Isabelle Martinez, an FIU senior, was 9 years old when Clinton left office. “We remember images” of the Clinton presidency, she said, after snapping a digital image of the crowd with her lime-green-covered iPad.

Martinez, an undecided voter who is leaning toward Obama, said Clinton was a powerful surrogate for him. Clinton “is very impactful for young people,” she said. “He already has this vibe and this attraction toward helping young people. I think a lot has to do with his organization — the Clinton Global Initiative — it kind of gears toward college students.”

Clinton announced Monday that he would play host to Obama and Romney this month at his organization’s annual meeting in New York. Four years ago, Republican nominee John McCain addressed the meeting and Obama spoke via satellite.

Florida has officially gone Democratic only twice in more than 30 years. The first was Clinton’s reelection in 1996. The second time was four years ago, when Obama carried the state by almost 3 percentage points. Recent polls call it a tossup.

Armando Garcia, 27, wasn’t living in the United States when Clinton was president. But the medical technologist from Miami said it was obvious why the former president is more popular than the incumbent he is trying to help reelect.

“The economy back in his time. He pulled out the economy,” said Garcia, who was 18 when his political refugee parents brought him to the U.S. from Cuba. He said he was impressed with Clinton’s convention speech in Charlotte, which he watched on YouTube.

Brooke Lawrence, 49, a mother of 9- and 11-year-old boys, said, “I love Bill Clinton. I think he has a real gift for taking all the issues and simplifying them and backing them up in a way that everyone can understand.”

She noted that Clinton, despite his personal popularity, was still a polarizing figure. But, she added, “I loved what he said at the convention. I think he’s articulate and really speaks to everyone.”

paul.west@latimes.coms


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