WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused each other of posing a threat to the well-being of America's elderly citizens, an issue brought to the fore after Romney chose a running mate who has proposed significantly changing the popular government-funded Medicare health care program that serves tens of millions of seniors.
Romney accused Obama on the campaign trail and in TV advertising of cutting Medicare "to pay for Obamacare," as Republicans often refer to the president's overhaul of the U.S. health care system. The charge drew a blistering response from Obama's campaign, which labeled the ad dishonest and hypocritical.
Medicare has always been a touchy political subject in a country where senior citizens are among the groups most likely to vote. Elderly voters will be especially crucial in the November presidential contest, expected to be among the closest in U.S. history.
Romney's accusations were a strong counterattack to Democratic charges that he and Republican vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan would radically remake Medicare. Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, provoked an outcry by once proposing privatizing the government-run insurance program for the elderly. He has since backed off the idea in favor of a plan that would give future retirees fixed government payments that could either go toward buying private plans or joining a government-run program modeled on Medicare.
The Romney attack suggests he hopes to overcome a generic Republican disadvantage on the issue of Medicare by telling voters that Obama has cut spending for a program that is overwhelmingly popular, and put the money toward one that is controversial.
Obama "has taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund. He's raided that trust fund," Romney said at a campaign stop in Ohio, as he neared the end of a multi-state bus trip punctuated by his weekend selection of a running mate.
"And you know what he did with it? He's used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky, unproven, federal takeover of health care. And If I'm president of the United States, we're putting the $716 billion back," he said.
Aides said a commercial containing the same allegation would begin airing immediately in several battleground states.
In a rebuttal issued shortly after the Romney TV ad was released, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith said the president's health care law did not "cut a single guaranteed Medicare benefit, and Mitt Romney embraced the very same savings when he promised he'd sign Paul Ryan's budget. ...The truth is that the Romney-Ryan budget would end Medicare as we know it."
In a campaign without summer doldrums, the rival sets of ticket mates campaigned in a half-dozen of the most hotly contested states, in settings as diverse as a coal mine in Ohio (Romney); a wind farm in Iowa (Obama) and a casino in Nevada (Ryan.)
Vice President Joe Biden stirred controversy in Virginia when he said the Republicans would favor the big banks over the interests of consumers. He said Romney has said he is "going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street."
Hundreds of black voters were in the audience that Biden told, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."
Romney's campaign reacted strongly to that, saying the comments were "not acceptable in our political discourse and demonstrate yet again that the Obama campaign will say and do anything to win this election." Biden later conceded using the wrong word but dismissed the Republican criticism and did not apologize.
At a speech closing his bus tour, Romney delivered a sweeping indictment of Obama's campaign. "Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago," he said in Chillicothe, Ohio, insisting that Obama had abandoned his 2008 campaign's messages of hope and change. The Obama campaign said Romney's comments seemed "unhinged."
The tempest over Biden's remark was modest compared to the building struggle over Medicare.
Democrats have quickly set out to draw attention to Ryan's plans, which contain deep cuts in projected spending in social programs as well as changes to Medicare for future retirees, and to try and saddle Romney with their political ownership.
Polling generally shows that the public places more trust in Democrats' ability to handle Medicare than they do Republicans. At the same time, polling shows the public strongly believes the financial security of Medicare must be guaranteed for the long term, and government reports for years have warned of a looming shortfall if something isn't done to change course.
Ryan and Romney have both cited a desire to right the program's finances as a motive for their plans.
Ryan, interviewed on Fox News Channel, said he and Romney believe Medicare can be a winning issue for Republicans in the fall. "Absolutely, because we're the ones who are offering a plan to save Medicare, to protect Medicare, to strengthen Medicare," he said.
Ryan didn't say so, but the budgets he has written in the House of Representatives both called for leaving in place the cuts to Medicare that he is now criticizing Obama for. Romney has consistently favored restoring the funds, and his running mate said, "I joined the Romney ticket."
In the days leading to Ryan's selection, opinion polls generally showed a close race with Obama holding a modest advantage despite a sluggish economy and unemployment of 8.3 percent.
In a campaign without summer doldrums, the rival camps campaigned in a half-dozen of the most hotly contested states.
Obama and Romney also clashed over energy policy.
The president taunted his challenger for opposing an extension of a tax break for wind production, quoting him as once having said, "You can't drive a car with a windmill on it. ..."
"I don't know if he's actually tried that. I know he's had other things on his car," Obama joked, referring to the often-repeated tale of a Romney family road trip with their dog, Seamus, in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car.
Romney, campaigning in coal-rich eastern Ohio, said Obama was misleading Ohio voters by claiming new jobs in coal producing regions. The former Massachusetts governor then promised to make the U.S. independent of imported oil in eight years.
"By the end of my second term, I'll make this commitment: We will have American, we will have North American energy independence," Romney said at a coal mine. "We won't have to buy oil from Venezuela and the Middle East. We're going to be independent."
Associated Press writers David Espo, Ken Thomas, Kasie Hunt, Matthew Daly, Jim Kuhnhenn and Steven R. Hurst contributed.