* Democrats take aim at Ryan plan to cut Medicare costs
* Seniors in swing state Florida could be at stake
* Romney adviser sees "campaign of fear and smear"
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, Aug 12 (Reuters) - In Florida last month, President Barack Obama worked up the crowd as he assailed a Republican plan to slash the federal budget deficit while also cutting taxes for millionaires by "squeezing more money out of our seniors."
He was referring to a plan proposed by congressman Paul Ryan to get elderly Americans to pay more out of pocket for their healthcare by changing the government-run Medicare program for seniors.
"It's wrong to ask you to pay for Medicare so that people who are doing well right now get even more," Obama told a gathering of retirees in West Palm Beach on July 19. "That's no way to reduce the deficit. We shouldn't be squeezing more money out of our seniors."
It's a line of attack the Obama campaign likely will be pressing even harder now that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has chosen Ryan as his running mate.
The Ryan plan could pose particular problems for Romney in Florida, the largest of the swing states in the Nov. 6 election and a haven for retirees.
Republicans have largely rejoiced at Romney's pick, since Ryan is an ambitious and engaging budget hawk who has vowed to enact fundamental changes to social programs put in place by the Democrats since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But Democrats are "ecstatic" too, according to Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "They see that they have a winning hand on a key issue," she said.
That's because Ryan is one of the few politicians willing to touch the proverbial "third rail" of American politics by proposing big changes to Medicare and Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, while also pushing for some privatization of the Social Security retirement system.
Medicare especially has long been seen as a healthcare issue that changes votes, and that may be especially true in Florida where seniors make up nearly 30 percent of the electorate and vote in large numbers.
As Obama told the gathering in West Palm Beach, Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program means that seniors would have to pay nearly $6,400 a year more for Medicare than they do now. That is a hefty sum for anyone living on a fixed income.
Ryan's plan calls for an end to the guaranteed benefit in Medicare and replaces it with a system that would give vouchers to recipients to pay for health insurance. The risk in such a plan is that if healthcare costs rise faster than the value of the vouchers, seniors would have to pay the difference.
"I think the Republicans are in the process of destroying themselves," said Denis Springer, 75, a retiree and a Democrat from Winter Park, Florida, when asked about Ryan on Saturday.
"I think anybody that fiddles around with Medicare and/or Social Security is going to impact the vote," added Bill Young, 68, a stockbroker from Naples, Florida.
Young, a Republican, said he still planned to vote for Romney but said he thought any plan to cut Medicare also hurt the former Massachusetts governor's chances of winning the election.
"If the Republicans lose they're probably going to point to this decision," MacManus said on Sunday of Romney's pick of Ryan.
"I think the biggest challenge for the Republican ticket is going to have to be to convince seniors, the 65 and over, that they're not going to get caught up in any of these reforms of Medicare because that is a scary aspect for all of them," she said.
More than half of registered Florida voters are at least 50 years old, and MacManus said people close to retirement age were also clearly preoccupied by talk of changes to Medicare and Social Security.
A tracking poll from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation last month showed that 45 percent of Americans trust Obama to do a better job handling Medicare than Romney, who was favored by 34 percent.
Another Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that 59 percent of respondents support no reductions to spending on Medicare, as part of an effort toward deficit reduction. That compared with 40 percent who would support some cuts.
Any cuts to Medicare are unlikely to have a direct impact on current beneficiaries of the program, since the changes would only affect people under age 55. And Ryan has reportedly watered down the voucher program, making it optional and allowing people to keep traditional Medicare if they preferred.
But alarming talk about cuts to social programs looks almost certain now to be part of what Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie, in comments to CNN on Sunday, described as "the campaign of fear and smear in 2012."
"The other side has accused Governor Romney of being a felon. They have accused him of being responsible for the tragic death of a woman. They're going to do all kinds of things to try to scare voters. We believe that voters will look at the facts," Gillespie said.