TAMPA, Fla. — There were plenty of promises at the Republican National Convention that Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, would level with the American people about sacrifices needed to protect the nation from fiscal ruin.
“We will not duck the tough issues,” Ryan told thousands of party loyalists who filled the arena of red, white and blue.
Left largely unspoken was exactly what hard choices the Republican ticket would ask the American people to make.
One reason: The convention had two audiences.
In the convention hall were the party regulars eager to see Republicans run on a pledge to curb entitlements and shrink government. In the broader television audience were millions of Americans who fear changes in the programs they have come to count on.
Photos: Romney accepts GOP nominationThroughout the week, Medicare loomed as the starkest example of the clash between the rhetoric that roused the party’s truest believers and the cold political realities of waging a winning campaign.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the convention’s rousing keynote speaker, told the crowd that Democrats mistakenly believe “the American people don’t want to hear the truth about the extent of our fiscal difficulties.”
“We believe in telling our seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements,” he said, alluding to the Republican ticket’s plan to offer future seniors vouchers to buy insurance on the private market as an alternative to traditional Medicare.
Texas delegate Stephen Broden, a Dallas church pastor wearing a cowboy hat, likened the GOP proposal to overhaul Medicare to the cod liver oil that his mother gave him as a boy to boost his immune system.
“There must be some changes to these entitlement programs,” he said. “We can’t put our heads in the hole and let the freight train run over us. Our way of life is in jeopardy.”
A California delegate, Bruce Thompson, called Romney’s proposed Medicare changes “the right medicine for the right time.”
“You’ve got to be honest with the people,” said Thompson, a former state assemblyman from San Diego County. “You can’t run away from it.”
But Romney and Ryan did not run toward it in their nationally televised convention speeches.
Rather than promote their plan — which Democrats say would increase healthcare costs for the elderly — Ryan attacked President Obama for cutting $716 billion in projected Medicare spending over the next decade.
“Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program and raiding it,” Ryan said, suggesting that the president was cutting entitlements too deeply.
Romney echoed those remarks in his speech accepting his party’s presidential nomination Thursday night, saying those cuts would “hurt today’s seniors.”
Obama’s Medicare cuts do not affect patient benefits, though; they are focused mainly on reducing reimbursement rates for hospitals and other care providers.
Polls show that the Medicare plan championed by Romney and Ryan is unpopular. A survey this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that just 34% of adults who had heard of the voucher concept supported it, while 49% opposed it.
Tim Hibbitts, an independent Oregon pollster, said Americans had rarely shown willingness to sacrifice in the years since World War II — and the prospects of that changing were especially slim during tough economic times.
“One of the problems the Republicans have here — and the Democrats are trying to exploit it — is the sacrifice is all going to come on the backs of the middle class and poor people,” Hibbitts said. “There is some Republican self-delusion going on here.”
During George W. Bush’s second term as president, his plan to transform Social Security from a guaranteed benefits program into a system of private investment accounts was similarly unpopular and collapsed when it failed to gain support in Congress.
Romney has tried to ease voter fears of his Medicare plan by saying lower-income seniors would get “more generous support to ensure that they can afford coverage” while the wealthier would get less. But the plan is unclear about who would have to sacrifice how much.
Ginger Howard, a Georgia delegate who owns a women’s clothing store in Atlanta, said the country had no choice but to change Medicare the way Romney has proposed. To her, it also makes sense to make it a central part of the campaign “and let the chips fall.”
“You have to take a risk,” she said on the convention floor. “You can’t be on the safe side.”