SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - The jobs-and-economy election suddenly seems all about Medicare - for now, at least.
Republican Mitt Romney is embracing a topic his party usually approaches gingerly. He is taking a calculated risk that voters' worries about federal deficits and the Democrats' health care overhaul have opened the door for a robust debate on the solvency of Medicare, the insurance program for retirees.
President Barack Obama is welcoming the conversation, which has temporarily taken attention from the weak economic recovery. No president since World War II has won re-election with the unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent.
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks during a campaign stop at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va., Friday.
One party may regret its position on Nov. 6.
Retirees in politically prized states such as Florida have often resisted changes in Medicare, one of the government's most popular but costliest programs. But GOP strategists say today's voters realize Medicare spending must be constrained, and Romney is banking on disenchantment with Obama's 2010 health care law to pave the way for his own proposals.
Romney, who has spent more than a year running almost entirely on the economy and jobs, put Medicare at the campaign's center when he chose as his running mate. Rep. Paul Ryan is Congress' chief advocate of significantly restraining entitlement programs.
Ryan did not address his Medicare plan at a campaign stop in Glen Allen, Va., on Friday, a break from the previous day's events in Ohio, where the issue figured prominently in his remarks. But the Wisconsin congressman is expected to revisit Medicare in some depth in Florida today. He will meet with voters in a retirement community north of Orlando known as The Villages. Ryan's 78-year-old mother, a Medicare recipient, plans to attend.
"We will not duck the tough issues; we will lead," Ryan told the Virginia crowd.
Romney's willingness to tackle the issue was underscored Thursday when he used a marker and classroom-type whiteboard to summarize his thoughts on Medicare, with hardly a word about the unemployment rate. He said his plans would keep Medicare solvent while Obama's would not.
On Friday, summarizing the political view from the right, the Romney campaign distributed a Wall Street Journal editorial that declared: "By governing so far to the left, Mr. Obama may have neutralized 'Mediscare' and made voters more receptive to center-right solutions. Medicare is already changing because it must."
Obama's campaign has tried for months to tie Romney to House Republicans and Ryan's budget proposal, which would turn Medicare into a voucher-like system for future retirees.
The Obama campaign released a new ad Friday defending the president's record on Medicare. It points to the AARP, a group that represents senior citizens and said in a letter to lawmakers earlier this year that Ryan's plan would lead to higher costs for seniors.
Romney's campaign disputed the ad, and repeated that Obama's plans would siphon spending from Medicare without safeguarding long-term stability.