THE VILLAGES, Florida (Reuters) - Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Saturday put a personal spin on the debate over Medicare, bringing his 78-year-old mother on stage at a speech to seniors in Florida where he vowed to safeguard the health insurance program for the elderly.
Under attack by Democrats for his budget cost-cutting plan that proposes a major transformation in how Medicare works, Ryan has gone on the offensive, charging that President Barack Obama would take billions from Medicare to pay for his 2010 health care reform law.
With that, he has also begun to align himself with presidential candidate Mitt Romney's approach to Medicare, one that would spend $716 billion more than either Obama's or Ryan's over the next 10 years.
Ryan personalized the issue at The Villages, the world's biggest retirement community and a bastion of Republican support in a key swing state.
"When I think of Medicare, it's not just a program, it's not just a bunch of numbers, it's what my mom relies on, it's what my grandma had," Ryan, 42, said.
Standing in front of a banner that read "Protect And Strengthen Medicare," Ryan hugged his mother Betty Douglas, who lives part-time in Florida. The short-haired, diminutive Douglas waved to the crowd.
Romney's choice of Ryan as his running mate has put a spotlight on the Wisconsin congressman's best-known achievement - a budget plan that would slash Medicare's projected costs by converting it to a program that provides limited subsidies to buy coverage.
But on the campaign trail, Ryan has emphasized less contentious proposals offered by Romney.
Talk of shrinking the health program for the elderly could lose votes in the November 6 election in the hotly contested state of Florida, home to the highest concentration of retirees in the country.
"Their plan would put Medicare on track to be ended as we know it," President Barack Obama said to a crowd of about 2,300 at a campaign event on Saturday in Windham, New Hampshire.
"You'd think they'd avoid talking about Medicare given the fact that both of them have proposed to voucherize the Medicare system. I guess they figure the best defense is to try to go on offense," Obama said.
Polls show Romney and Obama running neck-and-neck in Florida, where the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election was decided.
Republicans accuse Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for the healthcare overhaul law that the Democratic president signed in 2010.
But Ryan's plan also would cut that money from Medicare, even as he proposes repealing the broader healthcare law. Romney says he would keep those funds for Medicare.
Ryan talked on Saturday about his grandmother who had Alzheimer's disease and moved in with him and his mother when he was in high school.
"Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma when we needed it then. And Medicare is there for my mom, when she needs it now. And we have to keep that guarantee," he said.
"But in order to make sure that we can guarantee that promise for my mom's generation, for those baby boomers who are retiring every day, we must reform it for my generation."
Medicare benefits nearly 50 million elderly and disabled Americans, but its financing will be squeezed by the growing numbers of retirees.
Concerns about the program's future have become the top healthcare issue in the 2012 election, surpassing worries about Obama's controversial healthcare law, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found earlier this week.
Joseph Bulla, 62, a Romney supporter at The Villages, said he liked Ryan's voucher plan for Medicare.
"It will give us a chance to choose what we want instead of being dictated to," he said.
Later on Saturday, Ryan and his mother attended a fundraiser at the private Club at the Treasure Island, near Tampa. The event was expected to raise more than $1 million and was hosted by a prominent Republican financial backer and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler.
Addressing some 200 attendees, Ryan pointed to the debt crisis flaring in Europe as a warning sign for the United States, putting the responsibility for the economic troubles abroad on European politicians who, he said, for decades made promises just to get re-elected.
"And now debt crisis hit and those empty promises have become broken promises," he said. "We will have the same fate if we don't turn this around."