| THE VILLAGES, Florida
THE VILLAGES, Florida 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 care program for the elderly.
Criticized by Democrats as the author of a cost-cutting budget proposal, Ryan has tried to distance himself from his own plan to curb Medicare benefits since Mitt Romney named him as his running mate a week ago.
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 moved away from his plan to emphasize less contentious proposals 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.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)