The Democrats' shifting strategy to make Medicare a central focus of the 2012 campaign appears to be paying dividends, as polls show voters — particularly in key swing states — are wary of Republican plans for the popular seniors' healthcare program.
Democratic leaders had spent most of the 112th Congress focused on jobs and the economy — even downplaying Medicare's significance after the issue propelled a Democrat to a surprise House victory in a New York special election last year.
But when GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney tapped House Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanDan Rather: Failure to repeal ObamaCare most 'staggering loss' so early in a term Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill GOP lawmaker: Time to work with Dems on healthcare MORE (R-Wis.) as his running mate in August, the Democratic message machine found a new focus.
"Our approach has always been that the three most important issues in the campaign, in alphabetical order, have been Medicare, Medicare and Medicare," Pelosi said recently.
The Democrats haven't looked back since.
Behind President Obama, party leaders have spent the past two months trying to link the Romney campaign to the most controversial elements of the Ryan budget, particularly the Medicare cuts, as the GOP nominee has sought to distance himself from the same provisions.
"What Gov. Romney did in picking Paul Ryan is, he has given clear definition to all those vague assertions he was making during his primary campaign," Vice President Biden told voters during a campaign sweep through Florida over the weekend. "[And] nowhere is it more clear what they would do than in Medicare."
Piling on, Pelosi and other House leaders broke from the campaign trail Tuesday to return to Washington for a forum examining how Ryan's budget would affect Medicare seniors.
They didn't mince words.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), vice chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, said the "Romney-Ryan budget" would take the country "back before 1965" when Medicare was launched. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, accused the Republicans of "transferring rising healthcare costs onto the backs of seniors."
Pelosi warned that Romney's plan for the popular entitlement program "means giving profit to the private sector at the expense of our seniors."
"The election is five weeks from today. Medicare is on the ballot. Medicare is in jeopardy," Pelosi said. "We have a responsibility to protect it."
That wasn't always the Democrats' national messaging strategy.
After Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) won an upset victory in a special election in May 2011 — a win that hinged largely on the unpopularity of Ryan's proposed Medicare cuts that year — Pelosi suggested the dynamics were regional, and that Medicare wouldn't necessarily be the national focus of the 2012 campaign.
"This is an issue that emerged in this district," Pelosi said at the time, perhaps wary of relaunching a healthcare debate so soon after the Democrats had been clobbered at the polls over Obama's healthcare reforms. "Every race is a different one."
On Tuesday, the Democratic leader sounded a different tone, thrusting healthcare to the center of the campaign when she characterized Medicare as "the most important issue facing the American people."
Republicans, meanwhile, are downplaying the significance of Medicare on voter sentiment this year.
Ryan, for one, says his proposal will not be a detriment to the GOP ticket. He accused Obama and the Democrats of misrepresenting what his budget plan would do, and suggested that voters would see through those "falsehoods" by Election Day.
"The president has put up ads literally telling his falsehoods about what our Medicare plan is," Ryan said Monday in an interview with local Wisconsin radio station WTMJ. "And once people understand that they've been duped about this, I think that they're just not going to buy all these arguments from the president in the final analysis."
Still, recent polls indicate that voters are skeptical about the Republicans' vision for Medicare.
A Gallup poll from late September found that voters in 12 battleground states trust Obama on Medicare over Romney by 50 to 44 percent. The national figures also favored Obama, 51 to 43 percent, according to that poll.
More recent surveys indicate that the gap could be growing.
A series of state polls released last week by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that voters in three key swing states — Florida, Virginia and Ohio — want to keep Medicare a guaranteed benefit program, as Democrats advocate, rather than capping premium subsidies at a fixed amount, as Ryan's plan would do.
In Florida, 65 percent of all respondents said they want to keep Medicare structured as it is, versus 29 percent who prefer the fixed-subsidy model, the Post/Kaiser poll found. In Ohio, the figures are 59 to 33 percent, also in favor of the current structure, while in Virginia the spread was 56 to 35 percent.
The Romney campaign dismissed those findings, suggesting the questions were misleading.