By Sam Baker - 09/21/12 05:25 PM EDT
Paul Ryan met loud boos and taunts, as well as deep skepticism, as he attacked President Obama's healthcare law at an AARP event Friday.
The unwelcome reception was a clear sign of just how big a challenge Medicare poses to the Romney campaign — and a setback for the idea that Ryan can successfully explain away seniors' concerns.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed controversial changes to Medicare in his House budget plan. Democrats, including Obama's reelection team, have used Ryan's proposals as bogeyman on the campaign trail and see it as a winning issue for their party.
The boos started early in Ryan's speech to an AARP conference in New Orleans, when he promised to repeal "ObamaCare."
Ryan said he expected a "mixed reaction" and plowed headlong into his criticism of how the Affordable Care Act tries to control Medicare costs.
But the crowd didn't seem to buy Ryan's claims that the healthcare law had weakened Medicare. He cited Medicare's chief actuary, who has said the law's $716 billion in Medicare savings will not actually extend the program's life, as its independent trustees have projected.
"But you know President Obama's slogan, right? Forward — forward into a future where seniors are denied the benefits they've earned," Ryan said.
AARP is the nation's largest and most powerful seniors' lobby. And seniors will help decide the presidential race in key swing states, including Florida, where Medicare has become an especially pressing issue after Romney selected Ryan as his running mate.
Ryan is the champion of the GOP's controversial plan to partially privatize Medicare, so seniors would choose between the existing program or a subsidy to help pay for private insurance.
Mitt Romney and Ryan say such an approach is necessary to stop Medicare spending from spiraling out of control, but they've spent much more time attacking Obama's Medicare cuts than making the case for their own.
Ryan received more applause when he tried to personalize his commitment to Medicare.
"When I think about Medicare, I don't think about charts and graphs and numbers," he said. "My thoughts go back to a house on Garfield Street in Janesville," Wis., Ryan's hometown.
Ryan addressed AARP — which endorsed Obama's healthcare law and has criticized the Ryan plan — shortly after Obama spoke to the conference by satellite.
In his remarks, Obama defended his signature healthcare and told seniors that Romney and Ryan would leave them "at the mercy of insurance companies."
Appearing via satellite to the AARP conference, Obama made an aggressive political and policy argument against his GOP rivals' proposal.
"The problem is that insurance companies, once they're getting vouchers, they're really good at recruiting the younger, healthier Medicare recipients," leaving only older and sicker patients in the government program, the president said.
Ryan, in his remarks, pushed back against the president's claim that Ryan and Romney would turn Medicare into a "voucher" program.
"That's a poll-tested word basically designed to scare seniors," Ryan said.
— Justin Sink contributed
— This story was updated at 2:13 p.m.