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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even before his running mate was booed by a lobbying group for older Americans on Friday, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was losing support among such voters, whose backing is crucial to his hopes of winning the November 6 election.
New polling by Reuters/Ipsos indicates that during the past two weeks - since just after the Democratic National Convention - support for Romney among Americans age 60 and older has crumbled, from a 20-point lead over Democratic President Barack Obama to less than 4 points.
Romney's double-digit advantages among older voters on the issues of healthcare and Medicare - the nation's health insurance program for those over 65 and the disabled - also have evaporated, and Obama has begun to build an advantage in both areas.
Voting preferences among seniors could change in the final six weeks of the campaign, but the polling suggests that a series of recent episodes favoring Obama and the Democrats could be chipping away at Romney's support among older Americans.
Romney's selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate put the federal budget and Medicare at center stage in the campaign. But the debate over spending and entitlement programs that Romney seemed to be seeking has not unfolded the way Republicans wanted.
At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, former President Bill Clinton gave a folksy but blistering critique of Ryan's plan to revamp Medicare, warning that it could leave seniors unprotected from escalating healthcare costs.
Meanwhile, Democrats' efforts to portray Romney as a wealthy former private equity executive with little sympathy for the less fortunate got a boost last week, from Romney himself.
On a secretly recorded video released by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Romney was shown telling supporters at a $50,000-a-person fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans would never vote for him because they do not pay federal income taxes, feel they are "victims," and depend on government benefits.
Democrats accused Romney of dismissing a range of Americans, including elderly people who depend on government programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Romney's campaign rejected that, but the recent polls suggest that such claims may be resonating with Americans aged 60 and older, who for months had been the only age group to consistently support Romney over Obama.
Analysts say that if Romney cannot reverse the trend among older voters, he won't win on November 6.
"If Romney loses seniors, he loses this election, period," said Jonathan Oberlander, a health policy specialist at the University of North Carolina. "A bad showing nationally (among older voters) does not bode well for Florida and other states with big senior populations."
Ryan's plan for Medicare would limit the program's costs by converting it from a provider of popular benefits to a system that would give future beneficiaries a financial stipend to help pay for private insurance or traditional Medicare.
Obama and fellow Democrats say Ryan's approach, which largely has been embraced by Republicans including Romney, would further expose seniors to rising healthcare costs and hasten Medicare's financial instability.
Republicans argue that their plan would preserve Medicare for future generations.
Medicare serves nearly 50 million retired and disabled Americans, and polls show stiff public resistance to the Ryan plan, with older voters opposing it by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Until now, however, there have been few tangible signs that opposition to Ryan's plan would translate into a preference for president.
Pollsters say Obama's recent rise in popularity among older Americans could signal that Democrats are winning the advertising battle over Medicare.
That would be something of a turnaround for Democrats.
For much of the past two years, Republicans have helped to sway public opinion against Obama's signature legislative achievement, his overhaul of the healthcare system, by casting it as a government overreach that will kill jobs by raising costs for employers.
Republicans also said Obama would cut $716 billion from Medicare, an allegation rejected by Democrats and independent analysts. Even so, the Republican claims of Medicare cuts drew large numbers of seniors to the polls in the 2010 elections, when Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
AARP, a grass-roots lobbying group with 37 million members aged 50 and up, backed Obama's healthcare plan against Republican critics. So it wasn't too surprising last week when Ryan, speaking at an AARP convention in New Orleans, faced a tough audience.
Less than five minutes into Ryan's speech, there were boos and cries of "No!" as he laid out the Republican message on Medicare and vowed to repeal "Obamacare."
But the data from Reuters/Ipsos polling - along with similar results from survey data of older voters by the Pew Research Center - indicate that the crowd's response in New Orleans could symbolize more than just one large group's discomfort with the Romney-Ryan ticket.
A Pew poll, conducted September 12-16 and released last week, showed Romney with only a 47 to 46 percent lead among registered voters aged 65-plus. He also trailed Obama by 7 points among people aged 45 to 64 - a huge potential voting bloc that analysts say is increasingly concerned about retirement security.
To illustrate the challenge that Romney could face in November, analysts note that Republican John McCain won 53 percent of the vote among those 65 and older in 2008, and lost to Obama with 46 percent of the overall vote.
"This is certainly a bit of a game changer," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said of the increasing support for Obama among older Americans. "Older individuals vote. They're the ones who turn up on Election Day, for sure."
Romney and Ryan are likely to need a clear victory among older voters to win the election, given Obama's advantages among other important voting groups such as women, minorities and young adults, analysts said.
"For Romney to win the election, he has to have the majority of the vote from people over 50," said Robert Blendon, a political analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If they share voters over 50, Romney's really going to take a loss here."
Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech