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The GOP's big gamble

From NBC's Mark Murray
By voting almost unanimously Friday on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget -- which would phase out Medicare for those under 55 -- House Republicans have made this gamble for 2012.

Either the normal rules of American politics have changed, or Republicans have walked into an electoral buzz saw -- on a Medicare plan that won't pass the 112th Congress and that many of them didn't campaign on in 2010.

According to the normal rules of politics, voters like their Medicare. A lot. In a February NBC/WSJ poll, a whopping 76 percent of respondents said that significantly cutting Medicare as way to reduce the deficit was unacceptable.

In a separate question, 50 percent said it was unacceptable to gradually turn Medicare into a voucher system -- and that included 56 percent of independents, 61 percent of seniors, and 57 percent of white Blue Dog Democrats. By comparison, 44 percent said that such a plan was acceptable, including 56 percent of GOP primary voters and 65 percent of Tea Party supporters.

(Note: Ryan maintains that his plan wouldn't give seniors a voucher, but would instead give them a subsidy to help them purchase a private-insurance health plan.)

In other words, according to the poll, a fundamental change to Medicare is supported by the right, but not by the middle or the left.

And Democrats are already playing offense. "UNBELIEVABLE! DEAN HELLER VOTES TO END MEDICARE," reads a press release the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent about Nevada GOP Congressman Dean Heller, who's running for the Senate in 2012.

Only four House Republicans -- Ron Paul (TX), Walter Jones (NC), Denny Rehberg (MT), and David McKinley (WV) -- voted against the GOP budget measure. (Rehberg is running for Montana's Senate seat next year, and McKinley potentially faces a tough contest for re-election in 2012.)

The other House Republicans, from safe or competitive districts, voted for the budget. "I’m surprised at everyone outside of Utah who voted for that," said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman at the Democratic group EMILY's List. "Seniors went GOP in record numbers last year. Let’s see what happens in 2012."

A GOP strategist admitted that backing the Ryan plan is risky for the Republican Party. "I'm afraid the GOP is walking into a buzz saw," the strategist told First Read before today's vote. "There is no electoral mandate for entitlement reform. In fact, Democrats suffered with seniors in 2010 because of their cuts to Medicare in the health care bill."

On the other hand, Ryan and congressional Republicans are gambling that the politics over entitlement reform have changed -- that the country's finances are in such a mess that Medicare has to be altered.

"They are going to demagogue us, and it's that demagoguery that has always prevented political leaders in the past from actually trying to fix the problem. We can't keep kicking this can down the road," Ryan said on FOX News earlier this month. "The president has punted. We're not going to follow suit. And, yes, we will be giving our political adversaries things to use against us in the next election, and shame on them if they do that."

Democrats will definitely use the budget plan on Republicans in the next election. The only question is whether it will work.

Msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this article.