WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 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."
"They're going to put y'all back in chains," Biden told his audience.
Romney's campaign reacted strongly, 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."
But that tempest 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 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 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 Ryan has prepared as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Romney's own proposals.