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Will the GOP's counter-offensive on Medicare be enough?


Anticipating having to play defense this fall on the issue of Medicare, Republicans have been preparing a strategy for the upcoming elections: punch back.

And this strategy undoubtedly assumed more urgency after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan -- the author of a Republican budget that overhauls the government-run health insurance program for seniors -- as his running mate, which only elevated Medicare as a central issue in November.

Govs. Bob McDonnell and Martin O'Malley discuss the differences between the 2012 presidential candidates' Medicare and economic plans with NBC's David Gregory.

The Republican strategy entails accusing President Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare -- and then, taking it a step further, by linking those cuts to paying for the president's health care reform law.

It was something, after all, that worked well during the 2010 midterm elections.

"We were going to get hit on this," a National Republican Congressional Committee official told NBC News last week about the impending Medicare battles, "but we had a good side of the story to tell."

But there are warning signs for the GOP that executing this plan might not be as easy as it seems.

MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, and a political power panel, including JP Freire of American Spectator, Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, and Nia-Malika Henderson of the Washington Post, about new polling that shows swing state voters favoring President Barack Obama on issues related to Medicare.

This week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found, for instance, that twice as many voters (30 percent to 15 percent), when read a description of GOP-favored reforms to Medicare, said they were a bad idea.

More worrying, though, might be the 51 percent of voters who said they had no opinion about the changes.

That suggests that the issue of Medicare is practically begging for definition this fall on the campaign trail. The number of voters who by Election Day say they have no opinion about either side of the Medicare debate is almost sure to drop. And these voters, when they leave the sidelines, could end up shaping the outcome in November.

Sara D. Davis / AP

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan refers to a list of deceased enlisted men during a campaign event at Partnership for Defense Innovation in Fayetteville, N.C.

Central to the Democratic case is the Ryan plan. The House Budget Committee chairman authored two versions of a plan that would essentially provide future seniors with a voucher or premium support to purchase private insurance that they deem suitable. The second iteration of the Ryan plan allows these future seniors the option to use the voucher/premium support to also gain access to traditional Medicare.

Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, charge this plan would end Medicare "as we know it," and argue that Romney and Ryan's joint plan would raise costs not just for future retirees, but current seniors, as well.

It's an issue on which Democrats have traditionally held a political advantage, and their messaging on Ryan's budgets is credited with contributing to special election victories this cycle.

But Republicans argue their twin-pronged counter-offensive has essentially brought the issue to a stalemate.

Republican pollster David Winston argued in a memo Thursday for the American Action Network that this message tests about evenly with Democrats' charge that Republicans would end Medicare and turn it into a voucher system.

"For Republicans to break even on these issues is a major shift and the survey shows that the issue Democrats have counted on as a reliable driver of voter support in past elections, is being overwhelmed by the economy," he wrote in the memo.

That's why Romney has voiced this argument much more on the campaign trail than explain his own changes to the entitlement program. It's why the NRCC's first independent expenditure ad on the topic of Medicare made this same argument.

The bottom line is that Republicans feel as though they can come out ahead on the strength of other issues, like the economy and the budget -- IF they can keep themselves even with Democrats on the issue of Medicare.

But on that issue, Obama has an early advantage over Romney. Tying each candidate to their party's proposals, the NBC News/WSJ poll found that 50 percent preferred Obama's approach toward Medicare to the 34 percent who favor Romney's.

And new polls released Thursday by Quinnipiac University, CBS News and the New York Times found that voters think Obama would do a better job on Medicare by 8, 10 and 9 percent in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, respectively. (That margin grows in Obama's favor among voters who rate Medicare as "extremely important" in determining their vote.)

Medicare appears to remain turf on which Democrats have an advantage, which explains why some Republicans -- while gratified by the party's efforts to defend the party on that issue -- have begun to push Romney and the rest of the GOP leadership to turn back toward the economy, an issue on which they have an advantage.

"There’s a difference between inoculation and playing all-out defense. When Republicans are talking about Medicare, we’re not winning," one veteran GOP strategist said. "That’s not to say Republicans shouldn’t push back and be aggressive in doing so, but making Medicare a centerpiece in the election with less than 90 days to go is fraught with risk."