THE VILLAGES, Fla., Aug. 18, 2012— -- With his 78-year-old mother by his side, Paul Ryan told a crowd of several thousand retirees that he and Mitt Romney have a plan that will save Medicare from bankruptcy and accused President Obama of "raiding it."
Since the House Budget Committee chairman joined the GOP ticket one week ago today, Medicare has suddenly become the signature issue of the presidential campaign.
"Like a lot of Americans, when I think about 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, dressed in a blue polo shirt and khakis, told the crowd, many of whom wore Romney/Ryan visors.
"My grandma moved in with us -- with my mom and me -- when I was in high school," he said. "She had advanced Alzheimer's. My mom and I were her two primary caregivers. You learn a lot about life; you learn a lot about your elderly seniors in your family; you learn a lot about Alzheimer's.
"Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma, when we needed it then; and Medicare is there for my mom while she needs it now, and we have to keep that guarantee," he said.
Ryan's mother, Betty Douglas, lives half the year in Ft. Lauderdale in southern Florida and half the year in their hometown of Janesville, Wis.
In front of the sea of seniors, the vice presidential candidate accused President Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care plan.
Ryan included those same cuts in his signature budget plan -- the same plan Mitt Romney has said he would sign if he becomes president -- but Ryan says he was forced to build his plan on those cuts because they were already signed into law.
The $716 billion in cuts do not affect benefits for today's seniors. Instead, they reduce provider reimbursements and are intended to curb waste, fraud and abuse.
Ryan's plan has come under attack from Democrats because it would fundamentally change the plan, essentially making it a voucher program that critics say could cost senior citizens more.
Ryan says his plan is the only way to save Medicare from going completely bankrupt, and Romney has said his plan for Medicare is nearly "identical" to Ryan's.
Ryan has experience selling the message to seniors, but instead of the white board and complex message that Romney brought out at a press conference earlier in the week, the vice presidential candidate simplified and defended it in just a few sentences, saying "the best way to save Medicare is to empower" seniors.
"It's a plan that says: do not change benefits for people 55 and above, and for those of us who are younger when we become Medicare eligible, we get a choice of guaranteed coverage options. Guaranteed affordability options. Guaranteed affordability, including traditional Medicare. So we get to pick the plan for us when we retire, and that means all those providers compete against each other for our business," Ryan said to the crowd, which answered him at times with chants of, "Go Paul!"
Although the crowd was excited and plenty of women reached out to give hugs to Ryan on the ropeline, the audience was nothing like the around 40,000 people who came out in thousands of decorated golf carts to the same town square four years ago to see Sarah Palin. In January, about 5,000 people were at Romney's rally here.
At the Villages, Ryan mentioned the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a Medicare cost-cutting board, for the first time on the stump. Opponents of IPAB say it gives too much control to bureaucrats and could force cuts in health care that is essential to the sick and elderly.
Sarah Palin made them famous by calling them "death panels." Today, Ryan didn't go that far, but he still sent a scary message about the president's plan.
"He puts a board of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of Medicare who are required to cut Medicare in ways that will lead to denied care for current seniors," Ryan said. "You want to know what Medicare is saying about this? From Medicare officials themselves, one out of six of our hospitals and our nursing homes will go out of business as a result of this. Four million seniors are projected to lose their Medicare advantage plans that they enjoy and they choose today under this 'Obamacare' plan.
"What's worse is the president's campaign calls this an achievement," he said. "Do you think raiding Medicare to pay for 'Obamacare' is an achievement? Do you think empowering a board of bureaucrats to cut Medicare an achievement? Neither do I. Medicare should not be used as a piggy bank for 'Obamacare.' Medicare should be used to be the promise that it made to our current seniors. Period. End of Story."
Ryan promised that he would make sure IPAB would "not mess with my mom's healthcare or your mom's healthcare" and employed a move he's used at Medicare town halls in his own district in Wisconsin.
"Let me just see a show of hands. How many of you are 55 or over?" Ryan asked the crowd.
A sea of hands raised, causing both Ryan and the large audience to break into laughter.
"Wow. OK. OK, how many of you are not?" Ryan said. "Our solution to preserve, protect, and save Medicare does not affect your benefits. Let me repeat that. Our plan does not affect the benefits for people who are in or near retirement. It's a promise that was made and it's a promise that must be kept.
"But in order to make sure 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," he said. "To save it for this generation, you have to reform it for my generation so it doesn't go bankrupt when we retire."
The Villages is a conservative enclave, but a few protesters wearing Obama T-shirts did show up. A plane few above dragging a sign that read: "Paul Ryan: Hands off our Medicare!"