WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama in person and in TV advertising Tuesday of cutting Medicare "to pay for Obamacare," launching a strong counterattack to Democratic charges that he and running mate Paul Ryan would radically remake the popular health care program that serves tens of millions of seniors.
The charge drew a blistering response from Obama's campaign, which labeled the ad dishonest and hypocritical.
Obama "has taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund. He's raided that trust fund," Romney said at a campaign stop in Beallsville, Ohio, as he neared the end of a multi-state bus trip punctuated by his weekend selection of a ticket mate.
"And you know what he did with it? He's used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky, unproven, federal takeover of health care. And If I'm president of the United States, we're putting the $716 billion back," he said.
Aides said a commercial containing the same allegation would begin airing immediately in several battleground states, although they declined to provide details.
In a campaign without summer doldrums, the rival sets of ticket mates campaigned in a half-dozen of the most hotly contested states, in settings as diverse as a coal mine in Ohio (Romney); a wind farm in Iowa (Obama) and a casino in Nevada (Ryan.)
Vice President Joe Biden stirred controversy in Virginia when he said the Republicans would favor the big banks over the interests of consumers. He said Romney has said he is "going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street."
Hundreds of black voters were in the audience that Biden told, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."
Romney's campaign reacted strongly to that, saying the comments were "not acceptable in our political discourse and demonstrate yet again that the Obama campaign will say and do anything to win this election." Biden later conceded using the wrong word but dismissed the Republican criticism and did not apologize.
At a speech closing his bus tour, Romney delivered a sweeping indictment of Obama's campaign. "Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago," he said in Chillicothe, Ohio, insisting that Obama had abandoned his 2008 campaign's messages of hope and change. The Obama campaign said Romney's comments seemed "unhinged."
The tempest over Biden's remark was modest compared to the building struggle over Medicare.
Romney's criticism on that subject appeared an attempt to gain some measure of control over an issue likely to play a significant role in the outcome of the election. Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa are among the top five states in the country in the percentage of people 65 and over, and all three are battleground states.
In a rebuttal issued shortly after the Romney TV ad was released, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith said the president's health care law did not "cut a single guaranteed Medicare benefit, and Mitt Romney embraced the very same savings when he promised he'd sign Paul Ryan's budget. ...The truth is that the Romney-Ryan budget would end Medicare as we know it."
In the days leading to Ryan's selection, opinion polls generally showed a close race with Obama holding a modest advantage despite a sluggish economy and unemployment of 8.3 percent. Romney's pick for a running mate drew enthusiastic support from conservatives pleased that he had tapped a lawmaker known as an intellectual leader of the effort to rein in big government benefit programs and reduce future deficits.
But Democrats, too, said they were happy with the selection. They have quickly set out to draw attention to Ryan's plans, which contain deep cuts in projected spending in social programs as well as changes to Medicare for future retirees, and to try and saddle Romney with their political ownership.
Polling generally shows that the public places more trust in Democrats' ability to handle Medicare than they do Republicans, and that people also generally oppose plans to replace the current program with one in which future seniors receive a fixed amount of money from the government to be used to purchase health coverage.
At the same time, polling shows the public strongly believes the financial security of Medicare as well as Social Security must be guaranteed for the long term, and government reports for years have warned of a looming shortfall if something isn't done to change course.
Ryan and Romney have both cited a desire to right the program's finances as a motive for their plans.
Moreover, Romney's attack during the day suggests he hopes to overcome a generic Republican disadvantage on the issue by telling voters that Obama has cut spending for a program that is overwhelmingly popular, and put the money toward one that is controversial.
"So now the money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going for a massive new government program that's not for you," says the announcer in the ad, referring to the health care law that Obama signed into law in 2010. "The Romney-Ryan plan protects Medicare benefits for today's seniors and strengthens the plan for the next generation," the ad concludes.
Ryan, interviewed on Fox News Channel, said he and Romney believe Medicare can be a winning issue for Republicans in the fall. "Absolutely, because we're the ones who are offering a plan to save Medicare, to protect Medicare, to strengthen Medicare," he said.
Ryan didn't say so, but the budgets he has written in the House both called for leaving in place the cuts to Medicare that he is now criticizing. Romney has consistently favored restoring the funds, and his running mate said, "I joined the Romney ticket."
Romney decided to go on the attack on one issue as the president's re-election campaign sharply criticized him on another.
"Romney's plans would cut college aid for nearly 10 million students ... and eliminate the tax deduction for college tuition," says a new television commercial that Obama's re-election campaign said would run in several battleground states. The commercial cites estimates from the budgets that Ryan has prepared as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Romney's own proposals.
Obama and Romney clashed over yet a third issue during the day, laying out different views on energy policy.
The president taunted his challenger for opposing an extension of a tax break for wind production, quoting him as once having said, "You can't drive a car with a windmill on it. ..."
"I don't know if he's actually tried that. I know he's had other things on his car," Obama joked, referring to the often-repeated tale of a Romney family road trip with their dog, Seamus, in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car.
Government estimates say that more than 6,000 jobs statewide and 20 percent of Iowa's electricity needs come from wind power, and the state's senior GOP leaders all support renewing an extension of a wind tax credit that Romney opposes.
The wind tax provision is one of dozens of credits that would be renewed in legislation making its way to the Senate floor, including several that deal with energy such as of biodiesel, geothermal, biomass and hydropower.
Romney's campaign did not respond to repeated quests for his position on the other portions of the bill, which includes items such as a tax break for developers of NASCAR facilities and purchasers of electric motorcycles.
The former Massachusetts governor sounded eager to challenge Obama's energy policy as he campaigned in coal country in southeastern Ohio. Accusing the president of waging a war on coal, he said Obama favors production of energy that comes only "from above the ground," a reference to wind power and other alternative sources.
"I'm for all of the above whether it comes from above the ground or below the ground," he said.