By Mike Lillis and Carlo Muñoz - 08/19/12 09:15 PM EDT
It's supposed to be the Democrats' signature issue, but Medicare has risen to the forefront of this year's presidential race — largely because Mitt Romney’s campaign has put it there.
On the Sunday political shows, surrogates for the GOP presidential hopeful amplified their attacks on President Obama's Medicare plans, saying the Democrats' reforms will gut the popular seniors program, leaving it up to Republicans to save it.
That twist on the usual Washington refrain — Democrats for decades have accused Republicans of wanting to dismantle Medicare — combined with the aggressive nature of the GOP's messaging campaign all but ensure that the issue will remain in the headlines in the run up to election day.
Republicans now are hoping to duplicate that trick with Medicare, charging full steam ahead with claims that Democrats are threatening seniors' health and Republicans are racing to the rescue.
That strategy was on full display on the Sunday shows, where members of Romney's camp blasted the Democrats' Medicare reforms as a threat to a program they've championed for years.
"In order to pay for ‘ObamaCare,’ he raided the Medicare piggy bank, took $700 billion out of the Medicare program and shifted it to ObamaCare, [and] that's wrong," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, on CNN's “State of the Union,” adding that the changes would force thousands of seniors to look for alternative forms of coverage.
“There are people out there right now ... who are now shopping for new Medicare — or new private healthcare — because their Medicare Advantage program is being cut by this president," he said.
Senior Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie was asked by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace if the focus on Medicare meant other important issues, including the economy, would be overshadowed.
"We think a more fulsome debate about the future of Medicare and Romney-Ryan approach is good for us," said Gillespie.
GOP strategist and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove piled on, saying the Medicare debate is inescapable and the Romney team was served best by going on the offense.
"There was going to be a battle about Medicare no matter what. The question was, was it going to be left to what the Democrats traditionally do, which is late-night phone calls in the final weeks of the campaign to seniors and scary mail pieces, [or] were we going to have a full-out honest debate," Rove said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Democrats have been quick to push back, arguing that Medicare cuts at the center of the GOP attacks — roughly $700 billion in reductions to projected Medicare growth estimated over the next decade under the Democrats' 2010 reform law — come largely from eliminating waste, fraud and subsidies to insurance companies, not from cutting health benefits to seniors.
"We were rooting out waste and fraud" in the Medicare system, Stephanie Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, told CNN on Sunday. The White House, she added, "used those savings to put it back into Medicare."
Appearing at a campaign stop in The Villages, Fla., on Saturday, Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), repeated the campaign's vow to repeal Obama’s healthcare reforms, including the $716 billion in cuts to projected growth.
“Medicare was there for my family, for my grandma, when we needed it then, and Medicare’s there for my mom while she needs it now," Ryan, appearing with his 78-year-old mother, told a crowd largely composed of seniors. "We need to keep that guarantee."
Said Fehrnstrom, “This is the first election cycle I can remember in a long time where Democrats are on the defensive because of Medicare."
For Romney and the GOP, however, the strategy carries enormous risks. First, Republicans have a history of attacking Medicare that dates back decades and includes opposition from such party stalwarts as former President Reagan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). With that in mind, it's unclear whether voters will buy the Romney argument that he is fighting to save the program from cuts imposed by Democrats.
Second, the cuts over which Republicans are attacking Obama were included in the GOP's 2013 budget, authored by Ryan and endorsed by Romney.
And third, Republicans have spent months trying to make November's elections a verdict on Obama's handling of an economy in which unemployment has hovered above 8 percent for more than 40 months. Every day the headlines feature Medicare — and not jobs — is another day some GOP strategists believe the president has managed to dodge criticism over his chief vulnerability.
Not that Republicans are backing down. On Friday, Romney released a podcast saying Obama "raided" Medicare in order "to finance his takeover of the healthcare system." Ryan echoed that message a day later in Florida, declaring that the Medicare fight was "one we're going to win."
Still, even some of Romney's most prominent supporters are unsure if the gamble will work. Asked Sunday if Romney was wise to shift the campaign's focus from the economy to Medicare, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) said the answer won't be known until after the election.
"It's either going to be one of the great political decisions or one of the [great] political mistakes," Giuliani said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "But I think it's a gutsy one."