* Fiscal hawk says he would protect Medicare
* Obama: Romney-Ryan would end Medicare "as we know it"
* Health insurance for elderly key issue in Florida
THE VILLAGES, Florida, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Republican vice
presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Saturday put a personal spin
on the debate over Medicare, bringing his 78-year-old mother on
stage at a speech to seniors in Florida where he vowed to
safeguard the health care program for the elderly.
Criticized by Democrats as the author of a cost-cutting
budget proposal, Ryan has tried to distance himself from his own
plan to curb Medicare benefits since Mitt Romney named him as
his running mate a week ago.
Ryan personalized the issue at The Villages, the world's
biggest retirement community and a bastion of Republican support
in a key swing state.
"When I think of Medicare, it's not just a program, it's not
just a bunch of numbers, it's what my mom relies on, it's what
my grandma had," Ryan, 42, said.
Standing in front of a banner that read "Protect And
Strengthen Medicare," Ryan hugged his mother Betty Douglas, who
lives part-time in Florida. The short-haired, diminutive Douglas
waved to the crowd.
Romney's choice of Ryan as his running mate has put a
spotlight on the Wisconsin congressman's best-known achievement
- a budget plan that would slash Medicare's projected costs by
converting it to a program that provides limited subsidies to
But on the campaign trail, Ryan has moved away from his plan
to emphasize less contentious proposals by Romney.
Talk of shrinking the health program for the elderly could
lose votes in the Nov. 6 election in the hotly contested state
of Florida, home to the highest concentration of retirees in the
"Their plan would put Medicare on track to be ended as we
know it," President Barack Obama said to a crowd of about 2,300
at a campaign event on Saturday in Windham, New Hampshire.
"You'd think they'd avoid talking about Medicare given the
fact that both of them have proposed to voucherize the Medicare
system. I guess they figure the best defense is to try to go on
offense," Obama said.
Polls show Romney and Obama running neck-and-neck in
Florida, where the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election was
Republicans accuse Obama of cutting $716 billion from
Medicare to pay for the healthcare overhaul law that the
Democratic president signed in 2010.
But Ryan's plan also would cut that money from Medicare,
even as he proposes repealing the broader healthcare law. Romney
says he would keep those funds for Medicare.
Ryan talked on Saturday about his grandmother who had
Alzheimer's disease and moved in with him and his mother when he
was in high school.
"Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma when we
needed it then. And Medicare is there for my mom, when she needs
it now. And we have to keep that guarantee," he said.
"But in order to make sure that we can guarantee that
promise for my mom's generation, for those baby boomers who are
retiring every day, we must reform it for my generation."
Medicare benefits nearly 50 million elderly and disabled
Americans, but its financing will be squeezed by the growing
numbers of retirees.
Concerns about the program's future have become the top
healthcare issue in the 2012 election, surpassing worries about
Obama's controversial healthcare law, a Kaiser Family Foundation
poll found earlier this week.
Joseph Bulla, 62, a Romney supporter at The Villages, said
he liked Ryan's voucher plan for Medicare. "It will give us a
chance to choose what we want instead of being dictated to," he