Ryan downplays his signature issue on campaign trail

WASHINGTON/SPRINGFIELD, Virginia Fri Aug 17, 2012 7:24pm EDT

REFILE - QUALITY REPEAT Republican vice presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks during a campaign rally at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio August 15, 2012. Seen behind Ryan are (from L to R) Professor Rich Hart, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein

REFILE - QUALITY REPEAT Republican vice presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks during a campaign rally at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio August 15, 2012. Seen behind Ryan are (from L to R) Professor Rich Hart, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH).

Credit: Reuters/Aaron Bernstein

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WASHINGTON/SPRINGFIELD, Virginia (Reuters) - In his first week as a Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan has quietly moved away from the Medicare reform plan that has defined his political career.

At campaign stops, Ryan has made little mention of the Medicare and budget savings that conservatives cheered when presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced his running mate. When Medicare comes up, it's more often than not in an attack on Democratic President Barack Obama.

"Do you think raiding Medicare to pay for Obamacare is an achievement? Why don't we just get rid of Obamacare all together?" Ryan said at a rally in Springfield, Virginia, on Friday.

Romney, meanwhile, has promised to spend $716 billion more than either Ryan or Obama would spend over the coming 10 years on the popular government health insurance program for the elderly.

Romney's promise - and Ryan's silence - could help their ticket pick up votes among the elderly who are suspicious of any changes to Medicare.

But the Republican candidates' stance would also make it more difficult to reduce trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits, said to Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"What Ryan and Romney are doing right now is political, not budgetary. They are clearly doing less than I think they should in terms of Medicare reform, and they're doing it for purely political reasons," said Tanner, who has been a fierce critic of Obama's health insurance law.

Like Ryan's plan, Romney's plan would convert Medicare from a program that provides guaranteed health benefits to retirees to one that provides seniors with limited subsidies to buy coverage.

Unlike Ryan's Medicare plan, Romney's proposal lacks the detail that would let taxpayers and beneficiaries know how much it would cost them.

That information could be of interest to many voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 46 percent of voters would support a plan that would cap Medicare costs, but 70 percent would oppose a plan that would require them to pay more out of pocket.

SIMILAR, BUT DETAILS MISSING

Ryan and Romney's budget proposals are broadly similar.

Seniors would be able to choose between traditional Medicare or a menu of private plans. Neither plan would apply to current beneficiaries or for those who turn 65 before 2023.

Both plans rely on competition to hold down health costs over the long term, an idea that has won support from budget experts across the political spectrum.

The difference comes down to cost controls.

Ryan's plan would limit the subsidy's annual growth rate to only 0.5 of a percentage point above the annual economic growth rate. Starting in 2020, Obama's law limits Medicare growth to 1 percentage point above the growth of the economy. Both approaches would force Medicare to grow at a slower rate than health care costs as a whole.

Romney's plan does not specify how large the subsidy for coverage would be, or how much it would grow over the years.

Ryan's proposal would keep many of the changes designed to save money included in Obama's Affordable Care Act, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates would slow the program's rate of growth by about $716 billion over the coming 10 years.

Romney's plan would not include many of those changes. Romney argues that those spending reductions, which come largely through reduced payments to hospitals and insurers, would prompt many health providers to drop out of Medicare entirely, leaving seniors with fewer treatment options.

In Springfield, Ryan did not mention that his plan, which passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives this spring, incorporates Obama's savings as well.

"There's only one, on Medicare, only one person who treated Medicare like a piggy bank and that's President Obama who took $716 billion from that program to create Obamacare," he said.

The Obama campaign says that voters would be alarmed if Romney were to spell out the effects of his proposals.

"That's why Congressman Ryan, who was supposed to add substance to the Romney-Ryan ticket, avoided any specifics in Virginia today," Obama spokesman Danny Kanner said in a prepared statement.

Vice presidential candidates, of course, are required to play second fiddle.

Democrat Joe Biden campaigned for president in 2008 on a plan to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, but he didn't mention the idea when he formally accepted his party's vice presidential nomination later that year. Once in office, he worked to implement Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq but leave it intact.

So far, Ryan appears to be willing to set aside his charts and tables in order to serve the political interests of an election campaign that has steered clear of detail, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

"He's being neutered to be an acceptable vice presidential candidate, and he's obviously willing to have that operation performed," said Jillson.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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