ORLANDO, Fla. -- Maria Rubin is one of the coveted independent voters in this swing state -- so independent that she will not say whether she is voting for President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. She does share her age (63) and, more quickly, her opinion on Medicare: "I'm not in favor of changing it, or eliminating it."
Her attitude speaks directly to one of the biggest challenges facing the Republican ticket this year: countering the Democrats' long-standing advantage as the party more trusted to deal with Medicare.
In the 2010 congressional races, successful Republicans believed that they had finally found a way to do that, by linking the program's future to Obama's unpopular health insurance overhaul and accusing Democrats of cutting Medicare to pay for it. This summer Romney resumed the offensive, eventually joined by his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan.
Initially, polls suggested that the Republican strategy was working. Democrats fretted that Romney would win the retiree-heavy Florida and increase his support nationwide among older voters, who lean Republican anyway. David Winston, a Republican pollster, wrote a month ago of "a structural shift in the issue" that left the parties in "a dead heat" and Obama unable to mount an effective response.
But in recent weeks Obama and his campaign have hit back hard, and enlisted former President Bill Clinton as well, to make the case that the Romney-Ryan approach to Medicare would
The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted over the past week, found that Obama held an advantage over Romney on the question of who would do a better job of handling Medicare. That is consistent with other recent polls and is a shift from just last month, before the parties' national conventions, when the two men were statistically tied on the issue.
At the heart of the conflict is the proposal backed by Romney and Ryan to change the way Medicare works in an effort to drive down health care costs and keep the program solvent as the population ages. Under their plan, retirees would get a fixed annual payment from the government that they could use to buy traditional Medicare coverage or a private health insurance policy. Supporters say the change would hold expenses down by introducing more competition into the system.
Critics say the fixed payments might not keep up with rising insurance costs and could leave older Americans facing cutbacks in care or paying more out of their own pockets. Democrats contend that Medicare's rising costs can be held down within the existing system.
In the Times/CBS poll, more than three-quarters of voters favored keeping Medicare the way it is rather than switching to a system like the one backed by Romney and Ryan. From the White House on down, Democrats are calling the Republican approach a "voucher" plan, suggesting that it borders on privatizing the system; Republicans prefer the term "premium support."
As that poll result reflects, the Democratic message is resonating with voters such as Rubin, who joined other independent and Democratic voters last week to hear Clinton make his pitch for Obama's re-election in the packed ballroom of a resort hotel here.
"I don't trust anybody who says 'voucher,' " said Gary Fieldsend, 62, a retired employee at a Navy shipyard who was vacationing here with his wife Pamela, 64. The Fieldsends, from New Hampshire, another swing state, both said they were voting for Obama.
"I think it's very important that we keep it under control on cost," Fieldsend said. "But you have to cover people. Even if you've got millions of baby boomers, you've got to find a way to do it."
Given the political risks, Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, this year changed his 2011 budget passed by the House from a plan that would have made private insurance the only option available to beneficiaries to one that offered a choice between traditional Medicare or private coverage.
It is a paradox of recent politics that despite Democrats' usual advantage on Medicare, voters 65 and older are the age group least supportive of Obama and his party. His challenge is to depress Romney's support among older voters by raising doubts about Republicans on Medicare.
Medicare is an especially resonant issue in Florida, and Ryan has appeared in the state with his mother, a Medicare beneficiary, to emphasize the message that Republicans are trying to preserve the program, not end or curtail it.
So it was no accident that Clinton's first post-convention trip was to Florida. Or that he was preceded there last weekend by Obama, who made four stops in the state and will return again this week. Clinton brought up Medicare Advantage, a private insurance option for Medicare beneficiaries that is used by 2.1 million Floridians. Begun late in the Clinton administration as an experiment to cut costs through market competition, Medicare Advantage has instead proved more costly than regular Medicare.
The 2010 health care law reduced Medicare subsidies to insurance companies to help save $716 billion over 10 years, which added eight years to the program's financial life. But Republicans have been on the attack since, charging Democrats with robbing Medicare beneficiaries to pay for "Obamacare."
Clinton pointed out that a record number of insurance companies and beneficiaries now participate in Medicare Advantage, and that premiums are lower.
"So if the president was trying to wreck Medicare Advantage, he did a poor job of it because it's in the best shape it's ever been in," Clinton said.