WASHINGTON, D.C.-GOP leaders say the time is ripe to tackle the rising costs of Medicare, but with their reform attempt also comes the political risks associated with touching a third rail in politics.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate decisively voted down a sweeping proposal to turn Medicare into what amounts to a voucher program.

Five Republicans opposed the legislation that first passed the U.S. House on a party-line vote.

Every senator in Tennessee and Georgia voted in favor of changing Medicare and Medicaid. And they aren't bashful about it.

"To deny that Medicare is not the single biggest problem that confronts us both in the short run and in the long run is to be an ostrich," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "Just sticking your head in the sand is ridiculous, in my opinion."

Republican lawmakers and staffers say their party needs to do a better job of framing and promoting their proposal to change Medicare, especially since a large part of their base is senior citizens.

Campaign analysts agree.

"Republicans risk losing some support among that base of seniors heading into the 2012 election and that's dangerous for their party," said Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report in a phone interview.

Rank-and-file Republicans aren't getting much help from the campaign trail, either. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, made things worse for the GOP by calling the Medicare proposal "right-wing social engineering."

A special election in a conservative district in upstate New York was won this week by a Democrat and, while Republicans say the loss was because of a third party candidate, Democrats say it was all Medicare-related.

Now that most every Republican is on record supporting the controversial changes to a popular program, Democrats believe they have a hot campaign issue. Republicans are trying to combat that, but they know it's going to be difficult to get their side of the story out there.

"Campaign ads clearly are designed to misrepresent things," said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.

He and other freshmen Republicans in the region say they're proud of their vote on Medicare because it amounts to following through on their campaign pledge to slash the nation's debt.

As for the 2012 campaign, analysts say the biggest thing playing in the GOP's favor is time.

"Think of what we were talking about last year and how different that is," Wasserman said. "This is so far out from an election to be thinking about how it will impact November of 2012."

With the election so far away, other issues have ample opportunities to dominate the election, but for now Medicare is on the top of voter's minds, he said.