Tampa, Fla. – Even as Mitt Romney and Representative Paul D. Ryan exhort Republicans to embrace their proposed Medicare changes and spending cuts, the party’s rank and file is growing less enthusiastic about the fight than the top of the ticket.
Republican lawmakers and candidates are distancing themselves from the Ryan budget plan, which helped make the proposed changes a national issue. Republicans say the party now belongs to the more senior — and historically more malleable — member of the ticket, Mr. Romney, and not Mr. Ryan, the younger conservative firebrand who has become the subject of repeated Democratic criticism.
“The plan is the Romney plan,” said Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota. “He’s the one that’s going to drive the agenda.”
The distancing ranges from subtle to stark. Some first-time House candidates, unencumbered by a vote on the Ryan plan, have told local news media outlets that they have not and will not endorse the proposals found in the vice-presidential nominee’s budget. Some veteran lawmakers who voted for the plan are demurring on whether it will be the party’s policy blueprint, while the few in tough races who voted against it have made their opposition a calling card.
In a flier distributed to constituents, Representative David McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, who voted against the plan, said that it “would privatize Medicare for future retirees, raise the retirement age and keep in place the Medicare cuts included in last year’s health care bill.” The flier added, “The Congressional Budget Office determined the plan would nearly double out-of-pocket health care costs for future retirees.”
Ricky Gill, a 25-year-old Republican challenging Representative Jerry McNerney in California’s Central Valley, said he “commended the fact that there’s a mature conversation about the national debt.” But, he added, “it would be very difficult for me to endorse any specific plan without having a seat at the table.”
This week, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio repeatedly declined to say that a Republican election victory in November would be a mandate to pass a Ryan-style Medicare overhaul, instead pointing to energy, tax reform and more generalized deficit reduction.
Some Republicans continue to say that they will benefit from showing that they are willing to make hard choices about the deficit.
“In this election, on this issue, the usual posturing on the left isn’t going to work,” Mr. Ryan declared at the Republican National Convention. “Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate.”
Yet even Mr. Ryan chose to criticize Mr. Obama’s Medicare cuts in his speech instead of describing his own plan.
The change in tone will disappoint conservatives like the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who has said that the job of a Republican president is to sign the laws passed by a Republican Congress. Those laws were supposed to be dictated by Mr. Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” the budget approved this year by the House, which was seen by conservatives not as a starting point for negotiations but as marching orders.
Such certitude is giving way to political reality. Democrats have made the Ryan plan’s Medicare prescriptions their No. 1 issue in the battle for the House and Senate. Even Republicans conceded the attacks are taking a toll.
One Republican political consultant working on House and Senate races admitted “the Ryan budget is well under water,” hurting Republican House candidates in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Virginia, as well as Representative Rick Berg of North Dakota, once considered a shoo-in for the Senate. Republicans can effectively counter the Medicare attacks by going after Democrats on the president’s health care law, the consultant said, but every moment tussling over health care is a diversion from the issue that Republicans say can win the race — the economy.
Democrats are happy to concur. “We left for recess in a fairly neutral environment, where nearly a month later, we have a good stiff wind at our backs,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That wind is mostly propelled by Paul Ryan and his budget.”
Democrats are now pouring on the Medicare attack. A recent advertisement by the party attacked Representative Dan Benishek of Michigan, a freshman, saying that he had voted to “essentially end Medicare and raise costs on seniors by over $6,000,” the amount the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the Ryan plan would shift annually to Medicare beneficiaries.
The same line of attack is on the air in North Carolina against the Republican challenger David Rouzer, coupled with the charge that the Ryan budget also would cut taxes for millionaires, “definitely not North Carolina values.”
Republican candidates are reacting accordingly. Along with his colleague Mr. McKinley, Representative Denny Rehberg, Republican of Montana, openly disparages the Medicare proposal in his run for the Senate.
Mr. Gill, the California House candidate, cautioned, “The Republican Party has to be the party of fairness.”
Even veteran Republicans who are not facing the Democratic fusillade are grappling with the reality of legislating such sweeping changes to programs as popular as Medicare. Under the Ryan proposal, those currently under 55 would no longer receive guaranteed government health coverage at 65. Instead, at 67, they would receive a fixed annual subsidy to purchase private health insurance policies or pay into the government fee-for-service plan. That subsidy would increase each year slightly faster than the growth of the economy, regardless of the rate of health care cost inflation.
Mr. Romney has embraced the plan in theory, and said during the primary campaign that, as president, he would sign it into law. But some Republicans suggest that he would take a less dogmatic approach to negotiations that would likely include Democrats. Mr. Romney has “a track record of bringing people in to work together,” Mr. Hoeven said.
“Nobody knows whether it’s going to be the full Ryan plan or not,” cautioned Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare. “Mitt Romney will carefully go over every aspect of it.”
Officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee said the partisan attacks were already losing their potency. Guy Harrison, executive director of the committee, predicted that within a week or so, frustrated Democrats would move on to other issues.
But other Republicans do not expect Democrats to let up, and Democrats signaled even before Mr. Ryan was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee that his plan would be at the center of their 2012 strategy. Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star in Arkansas running for the seat of Representative Mike Ross, a Democrat who is retiring, said his opponent had tried to label him a Ryan “clone.” It will not work in his Republican-leaning district, he said, but other candidates are struggling.
Still, he said, most candidates are ready to fight for Mr. Ryan’s plan.
“They recognize, as the House members already there recognize, we have to have this debate, and we have to win this debate,” Mr. Cotton said, recalling ambush training he had in the Army when soldiers were drilled to face an attack head-on. “This is the most predictable ambush in politics. You don’t duck and cover. You turn and face it.”
Democrats are pointing to a number of recent polls, conducted by Democratic firms and suggesting that their candidates are gaining ground. On Friday, the House Majority PAC released a poll in a Minnesota race, showing that the Democratic challenger, Nick Nolan, was essentially tied with Representative Chip Cravaack, a freshman Republican.
This week, polls conducted for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed several Democrats in tight races with incumbent Republicans, including Patrick Murphy and Representative Allen B. West, a Tea Party-backed freshman, in a new Republican-leaning district in Florida; Dan Maffei and Representative Ann Marie Buerkle, another freshman, in a rematch from 2010 in upstate New York; and in a newly drawn district in California, Ami Bera and Representative Dan Lungren.
A poll conducted in early July by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners for Mr. McNerney in California, who barely survived 2010 and now is running in a redrawn district far from his Bay Area base of support, showed Mr. Gill running far behind, Mr. Gill, however, pointed to a July 28 poll conducted by the Tarrance Group for his campaign that showed the race to be much closer.