TREASURE ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — Showing no signs of letting up, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are doubling down on claims the other would threaten seniors' golden years.
Both campaigns sharpened their critique of the other's Medicare policies in recent days and planned to intensify them yet again on Sunday, as the already acrimonious race for the White House reached a new level. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, on Saturday told seniors here on Florida's western coast that he sees parallels with Europe's debt crisis that cut seniors' benefits. He warned the same could happen right here at home.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Obama said it is a sure thing that Romney would tear apart Medicare.
Medicare, the popular — though costly — health program for seniors, has become a flashpoint in the presidential race in the frenzied week since Romney picked Ryan as his vice presidential pick. Ryan, a deficit hawk and the House Republicans' chief budget writer, brought buzz to the ticket but also left Romney trying to explain to seniors that he would not take a wrecking ball to the program seniors see as a right.
Ryan has stood out in Washington for laying out tough spending choices that many lawmakers in both parties avoid. So it was almost inevitable that his selection as running mate would vault Medicare to the top of the campaign debate. But it isn't clear it will remain the top priority in an election that, to this point, has been a contest between Romney and Obama over who would be best for jobs and the economy.
Obama wasted no time reaching for the upper-hand on Medicare and his spokespeople were ready to take to the Sunday talk shows to plant doubts about what Ryan would do to seniors' programs in the name of balancing budgets. Romney's and Ryan's were at the ready, too, to point out Obama had shifted billions from the program to pay for Democrats' health care law.
It's a familiar charge already. On Saturday, Ryan accused Obama of raiding the Medicare "piggybank" to pay for his health care overhaul.
Obama countered that seniors shouldn't trust their golden years to Romney.
"They've been trying to sell this trickle-down snake oil before," Obama told his audience in Windham, N.H. "It did not work then. It will not work now. It will not reduce the deficit, it will not create jobs. It's the wrong direction for America."
Ryan's proposal in Congress would encourage future retirees to consider private coverage that the government would help pay for through a voucher-like system, while keeping the traditional program as an option.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Medicare over time would spend thousands less per senior under the Ryan plan than under current policy. Critics say that would shift heavy costs to individual retirees. The government could always spend more than anticipated to meet changing realities, but at the cost of deeper deficits.
Speaking to donors who paid as much as $50,000 to have dinner with him, Ryan compared the United States with Europe, where a financial crisis has led to cuts in benefits for retirees. He said European lawmakers delayed action even though they saw impending problems and seniors paid the price.
"They ran out of road to kick the can down, and now they have a debt crisis," Ryan said here near Tampa. "Now, a debt crisis hit and those empty promises have become broken promises."
Ryan warned the same could happen here if the country doesn't get its hands around its own affairs.
"It doesn't have to be that way. We can turn this around," Ryan said.
Earlier in the day, Ryan introduced his 78-year-old mother to an audience of seniors at the world's largest retirement community and passionately defended a program that has provided old-age security for two generations of his own family.
"She planned her retirement around this promise," Ryan said as Betty Ryan Douglas looked on. "That's a promise we have to keep."
Kuhnhenn reported from Rochester, N.H. Associated Press writer Charles Babington in West Tisbury, Mass., and Calvin Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.