Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate promises to intensify the debate over Medicare in senior-heavy Florida, where the issue could tip the perennial swing state's 29 electoral votes and the presidency.
Leading Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, praised Romney's choice on Saturday. Ryan's admirers say the 42-year-old House budget chairman from Wisconsin will bring communication skills, policy smarts and intellectual heft to the debate on taxes, spending and the $16 trillion national debt.
"Paul Ryan is a courageous reformer who understands our nation's challenges, has proposed bold policy solutions to solve them, and has shown the courage to stand up to President Obama and other Washington politicians trying to tear him down," said Rubio, who was the running mate of choice for many conservatives and Floridians.
Democrats didn't need to wait for fresh opposition research to launch attacks on Ryan. Since early 2011, they have been telling seniors around the state that Ryan's budget plans would "end Medicare as we know it."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, facing a tough reelection fight this year, recycled that line shortly after Romney introduced Ryan in Norfolk, Va.
"Romney VP pick bad for seniors. Signals an end to Medicare as we know it. My commitment to Medicare never stronger," Nelson posted on Facebook.
"It may very well have cost Romney Florida because of the large number of seniors we have," said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar.
Republicans say Ryan's Medicare plan is a needed fix for a program facing insolvency in 12 years.
Medicare's trustees project that the program as it is now structured will exhaust its Hospital Insurance trust fund in 2024 and only have enough revenue to pay 87 percent of projected expenses. By 2050, the trustees project, Medicare will only have enough revenue to cover 67 percent of expenses.
Ryan has proposed keeping Medicare as it is for current seniors and people within 10 years of retirement. But for those under 55, Ryan's 2011 budget plan called for changing Medicare from the fee-for-service program it is now to one in which the government provides subsidies to retirees to purchase private health insurance.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the plan would significantly increase the out-of-pocket costs for seniors entering the program a decade from now.
Ryan modified his plan this year, teaming with Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to back a plan that gives future seniors the option of traditional Medicare or the subsidy approach.
After the Republican-controlled House passed Ryan's original budget plan in 2011, Democrats attacked it as an end to Medicare and a liberal group ran a TV ad in which an actor who looks like Ryan pushes an old woman out of her wheelchair and off a cliff.
"That's what you can expect to see out of the Obama campaign and I really think it's going to backfire," said U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta. With Ryan in the highly visible role as Romney's running mate, Rooney said, "Once you get to know Paul you'll see that he's the most serious, self-disciplined guy. … He's somebody who is a policy wonk trying to solve problems rather than just give a sound bite."
Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson said he was "delighted" with the pick and more optimistic about Romney's prospects in Florida. He called Ryan "one of the leading thinkers in the Republican Party who can actually articulate what our entitlement reform is."
Wilson predicted Ryan's communication skills would overcome "demagoguing" by Democrats on Medicare and other issues.
"The caricature of Republicans wanting to kill granny only succeeds when Republicans are scared and hunker down," Wilson said. "I think Ryan has a substantive ability to articulate not only how we're going to cut but how we're going to have an economy built on growth again."
But Republican pollster Alex Patton of Gainesville was less certain of Ryan's impact in Florida.
"Personally I'm excited and I like him a lot," said Patton. "As an analyst, his effect on senior voters in Florida concerns me. You don't get to be president if you don't win Florida."
National exit polls show Republicans won 58 percent of the senior vote in the 2010 midterm elections, largely because of opposition to the federal health care law and its provisions affecting Medicare.
The health care law includes measures to reduce projected Medicare costs by about $500 billion over 10 years by slowing the rate of future spending increases. While Democrats called the spending slowdown "savings" that would not affect patients, Republicans argued the changes were "cuts" and seniors largely agreed.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said adding Ryan to the ticket changes the debate on Medicare from one that favored Republicans two years ago.
"This moves it from a debate about ‘Is the Obama health care plan good or bad?' to a debate
Christopher Ruddy, CEO of the West Palm Beach-based conservative magazine Newsmax, also sees the Ryan pick changing the Medicare debate from 2010.
"We're ceding a huge issue, the Medicare changes that Obamacare undertakes, by pushing the Ryan plan," Ruddy said. "We had the political high ground on Medicare after the Obamacare legislation was passed. Republicans won the 2010 elections because of the senior voters. Now Ryan is not liked by the senior voters on the Medicare issue."
Still, Ruddy said he doesn't expect Ryan to be a drag on the Republican ticket in Florida.
"I don't think it hurts him in Florida," Ruddy said. "But I don't think it helps."