MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are ready to face New Hampshire voters and answer their questions, especially about the Republican plan for Medicare that has left some seniors skittish.
Romney and Ryan on Monday will try to explain to voters — particularly seniors, who reliably cast ballots — that their proposal to offer a private alternative to Medicare would not affect anyone over age 55. Some 14 percent of New Hampshire residents are over the age of 65, and this state, which holds the nation's first presidential primary, is known for its voters' sharp questioning of candidates during such town hall-style events.
President Barack Obama spent Saturday in New Hampshire, casting doubts on what the GOP ticket would do for older voters.
"You would think they would avoid talking about Medicare, given the fact that both of them have proposed to voucherize the Medicare system," he said Saturday in Windham. "But I guess they figure the best defense is to try to go on offense.
"So, New Hampshire, here is what you need to know: Since I have been in office, I have strengthened Medicare."
Obama's top aides spent Sunday repeating the claim in television interviews that the GOP would gut Medicare, while Romney's aides spent their day trying to convince voters of the opposite.
"None of the changes would affect current beneficiaries. There is only one candidate in the race who has made cuts to Medicare that have affected current seniors, and that is President Obama," Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN.
"In order to pay for Obamacare, he raided the Medicare piggy bank, took $700 billion out of the Medicare program and shifted it to Obamacare," he added. "That's wrong."
But Ryan's own proposal in Congress is also worrisome for seniors. His Medicare plan 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. A main concern that has been raised about that approach is that the government payment for health insurance won't keep pace with health care inflation, shifting an ever-growing share of costs to people on fixed incomes.
A deficit hawk and the House Republicans' chief budget writer, 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 Romney's running mate would vault Medicare to the top of the campaign debate, even though any talk about changing the popular but costly program is typically avoided by presidential candidates.
The debate's dominant topic remains how to tame Medicare's explosive growth without hurting the millions of elderly Americans — and future retirees — who count on it to pay for health care.
In the latest issue of Newsweek, columnist Niall Ferguson called Ryan "one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere about addressing this country's fiscal crisis." Ferguson, who advised Republican John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, wrote the magazine's new cover story, headlined "Hit the Road, Barack."
Obama's campaign on Monday released a series of new radio advertisements that target aspects of Ryan's budget. Among the ads are spots in Florida that focus on Ryan's Medicare proposals and ads in North Carolina that accuse Ryan of wanting to cut funding for veterans' care.
Romney's campaign, meanwhile, is renewing its criticism of Obama's changes to welfare, launching a new television advertisement accusing the president of "gutting welfare reform." The ad says Romney would "put work back in welfare." The Romney campaign did not say which states the ad would run in, but said Romney will press the welfare issue during Monday's town hall in New Hampshire.
Romney has accused Obama of lifting a provision that required people receiving welfare to work. Obama's campaign says Romney's assertions are false.
"Just one week after pledging to run a substantive campaign, and whining about the negativity in this race, it's clear Mitt Romney has absolutely no intention of living up to that pledge," said campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith.
Obama moved last month to allow states to seek waivers from some welfare rules if they show that doing so results in better outcomes. Conservatives fear the waivers will lead to an end of the work requirement.
Romney, who spent the weekend north of Manchester at his vacation home in Wolfeboro, had no public events Sunday. Ryan was home in Janesville, Wis., and planned to join Romney for their first joint appearance in this state. New Hampshire's four electoral votes are being closely contested.
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