By CHARLES BABINGTON and BEN FELLER
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.
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 was critical of Obama's handling of Medicare during a campaign stop in Springfield, Va., repeating his assertion thata the GOP ticket welcomed the debate over the future of Medicare. The Wisconsin congressman is expected to revisit Medicare in some depth in Florida on Saturday. He will face 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, a claim Democrats call absurd.
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 TV 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 its own claim that Obama's plans would siphon spending from Medicare without safeguarding the program's long-term stability.
Obama's campaign released a separate ad Friday that sought to undercut Romney by pointing to Ryan's voting record on funding for Planned Parenthood and abortion. "For women, for president, the choice is ours," the ad says. It was airing in Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Iowa.
Though Medicare dominated the debate Friday, the parties engaged in another brief skirmish on Romney's personal tax returns. His campaign rejected a call for Romney to release five years of his federal tax returns -- instead of the two years he has agreed to -- in exchange for the Obama campaign's pledge to drop further demands on the subject.
Romney and the White House also condemned a new round of anti-Israel remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Romney told 80 people at a fundraiser overlooking the Long Island Sound: "Ahmadinejad of Iran made another series of vile statements about Israel, and excising Israel from the body of humanity, and so forth. And you recognize how critical it is to have leadership that describes precisely what it believes, describes what actions it's willing to take, and stands for something."
Otherwise, the Republican National Committee devoted its "weekend messaging memo" mainly to a graphic titled "Obama's Countdown to Medicare Bankruptcy."
Obama's Medicare policies are included in his 2010 health care overhaul, passed without a single Republican vote in Congress. Polls show "Obamacare" to be generally unpopular, though many key components, standing alone, enjoy wide support.
Obama's plan relies heavily on cutting payments to health care providers. Critics say that could cause some doctors to stop seeing Medicare patients.
The Romney-Ryan proposal would give future retirees a fixed amount of money to pick their health insurance from competing private plans or a government program. It would limit taxpayers' burden, but also force many patients to pay more of their health costs.
Romney is using the unpopularity of Obama's health care law to try to finesse a political problem.
Ryan has embraced Obama's call for about $716 billion in Medicare payment reductions, over 10 years, a move Romney opposes. In his whiteboard demonstration Thursday in South Carolina, Romney indicated his biggest objection to the $716 billion in reduced growth -- or savings -- is that the money is used to fund other elements of "Obamacare."
But those cuts are part of Ryan's overall budget blueprint. Ryan said he included them in his House plan because they were already part of current law - in essence, because Obama did it first.
Eager to confront what they claim are Romney's distortions, Obama campaign aides produced their own "video whiteboard" Friday. In it, spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter says Obama's $716 billion savings comes from reductions in "waste, fraud and abuse" in the Medicare program. She labels as "ridiculous" Romney's claim that his GOP plan would extend Medicare's life.
Independent groups say Romney hasn't provided the details needed to support his claim.
Some Democrats seemed happy to have another campaign week go by with comparatively modest focus on the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate. The economy has remained voters' top priority in the campaign so far, although several polls conducted before Ryan's selection suggested the federal budget deficit was not far behind.
A Pew Research Center poll in June, for example, found 35 percent called "jobs" the most important issue in deciding their vote, while 23 percent chose the budget deficit, 19 percent health care, 11 percent Social Security, 5 percent immigration and 4 percent gay marriage.
Friday's Wall Street Journal editorial page -- an important forum for conservative debates -- said, "The destructive policy and unpopularity of Obamacare have made Paul Ryan's reform politically possible."
The Obama camp is trying to make it a political liability.