WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Faced with Democratic Party assaults on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, Republicans have made the political calculation that a counter-attack can preserve support among senior citizens who could sway the November election's outcome.
"Democrats are asking for it," Mike Shields, political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a memo to party operatives on Monday, just days after presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his running mate.
Wisconsin Congressman Ryan has won the backing of party conservatives for policies aimed at cutting billions of dollars from the U.S. deficit. The most politically risky has been a proposal to transform the government's Medicare health plan for the elderly into a program that would give seniors vouchers to manage their own healthcare costs.
The danger, according to political analysts, is that elderly dislike for Ryan's plan could shave off as much as 5 percentage points of voter support from the Republican ticket in closely fought races in half a dozen swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Many Republican officials initially expressed misgivings about the Ryan pick. But a growing number now believe a powerful offensive could recast Medicare as a debate about President Barack Obama's unpopular healthcare reform law, a tactic that drew enough senior citizen support in 2010 to win a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The party also hopes to present Romney and Ryan as the team with the best plan to safeguard Medicare against future financial problems.
Ryan was already telegraphing the message late on Tuesday. "They turned Medicare into a piggy bank to finance Obamacare. The Obama campaign thinks it's an achievement that they raided Medicare to pay for Obamacare, and we want to point that out," Ryan said in a Fox News interview.
The top Republican in the U.S. Congress, John Boehner, outlined a similar strategy during a conference call with Republican lawmakers the same day.
Obama fired back by saying his rivals were being "pretty dishonest about my plan," knowing that their own view on Medicare was "not very popular.
A national Republican television commercial aired this week warning senior citizens that "money you paid" into Medicare would be used to fund "a massive new government program that's not for you." The party also plans to target Democratic House incumbents in six states with ads attacking their support for Medicare cuts in separate ads slated to begin on Friday.
"There's a fundamental misunderstanding that somehow this is not an issue that we're going to be 100 percent on offense on," said Sean Spicer of the Republican National Committee.
"But if you clearly define the issue, the problem that exists and the solutions that we offer, it's a winning issue."
There are still many risks to the strategy, political experts say. With nearly 50 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries, Medicare represents a major issue for both parties in deficit talks because healthcare costs tend to rise faster than inflation. The program is forecast to grow from $590 billion this year to $1 trillion in 2021.
Senior citizen voters have also been among the Republicans' most reliable supporters in recent elections, backing conservative policies on fiscal and social issues including gay marriage.
"They have put in play a group that prior to this was going to vote more Republican," said Robert Blendon, a political analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, later this month could be the party's best chance to define Medicare in favorable terms.
"If they fail, then Medicare will be used to bludgeon the GOP's candidates, from top to bottom of the ticket," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Medicare advocates contend that Ryan's plan would leave senior citizens responsible for thousands more dollars in per capita healthcare costs every year.
Ryan supporters, however, say it would spawn competition among doctors and other providers that would rein in cost growth, while streamlining the federal budget. They also argue that Obama's healthcare reform, due to take full effect in 2014, cuts $716 billion from Medicare.
The Obama administration attributes those savings to the law's effort to shift Medicare away from a system that pays doctors for the number of services they provide to a model that rewards the overall quality of care a patient.
Whether "Obamacare" or "Ryancare" proves to be the more potent political toxin remains to be seen. Obama's Medicare savings proved unpopular with elderly voters in 2010, when exit polls showed older voters favoring Republicans by a 57-41 percent margin. But opposition to the Ryan plan has been much stronger with seniors 2-1 against, according to the Pew Research Center.
"They are deeply concerned and wary of changes generally in Medicare and Social Security," said Pew associate director Carroll Doherty.
Mindful of a failure back in 2010 to effectively sell Obamacare, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began delivering automated phone messages to voters this week, warning them against Ryan's Medicare strategy in 50 districts where Republicans are up for re-election.
A new Obama Web video released on Wednesday uses TV news reporting on the Ryan plan to drive home the message that Republicans would "end Medicare as we know it."
Editing by Michele Gershberg and Lisa Shumaker