“Can we stay on Medicare?” Mitt Romney asked debate moderator Jim Lehrer after several minutes of back and forth on the issue between himself and President Barack Obama. It was a characteristic moment in Romney’s strong performance in Denver, when the former governor of Massachusetts sensed an advantage on a topic and kept pushing. It was also an indication of how these days, Republicans talking about Medicare are playing on their home turf.

According to a rush transcript, it was Obama, actually, who first discussed Medicare extensively in Wednesday’s debate. The president noted that Medicare is “the big driver of our deficit” and said he wanted to figure out a way to “strengthen” the program in the long run.

“In Medicare, what we did was we said we are going to have to bring down the costs if we are going to deal with our long-term deficits,” Obama said. “To do that, let's look at where some of the money is going. $716 billion we were able to save by no longer overpaying insurance companies and making sure we are not overpaying providers, and using that money we were able to lower prescription drug costs by an average of $600.”

It was an answer that assumes the politics on Medicare automatically favor Democrats. That’s not so anymore, and as Romney demonstrated, Obamacare has been the catalyst for this change. “It cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for it,” Romney said, when asked why he wanted to repeal Obamacare. “I want to put that money back into Medicare.”

Romney hit Obama hard on this point about Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare, getting specific about the law’s plan to put 1 out of every 16 dollars taken out of Medicare back into the program’s prescription drug plan. “Seniors are smart. They know that is not a good trade,” Romney said, speaking directly to Obama. “I want to take that money you have cut and put it back into Medicare…The idea of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to balance the [cost of the law] is a mistake.”

It took several minutes of discussion before Obama even attacked the Medicare plan of Romney and his running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, as a “voucher program.” Here’s more from Obama:

If you are 54 years old, you may want to listen. This will affect you. The idea was originally presented by Congressman Ryan, your running mate. We would get a voucher to seniors. They could go out in the private marketplace and buy their own health insurance. The problem is that because the voucher would not necessarily keep up with health care inflation, this would cost the average senior about $16,000 per year. But Governor Romney has said is he will maintain traditional Medicare alongside it. There is still a problem. Those insurance companies are clever about figuring out to are the younger and healthier seniors. They recruit them, leaving the older, sicker seniors in Medicare. Every health care economist has said overtime, the traditional Medicare system will collapse. You have people like my grandmother at the mercy of the private insurance system when they are most in need of decent health care. I do not think vouchers are the right way to go.

Romney responded aggressively, noting both that his plan does not affect current seniors and repeating the point that Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare do affect those seniors.

“I support no change for current retirees and near-retirees to Medicare,” Romney said. “The president supports taking money out of that program. For people coming along that are young, I would allow them to choose the current Medicare program or the private plan. It is their choice. They will have at least two plans that will be at no cost to them. They do not have to pay additional money. They will have at least two plans. If the government can be as efficient as the private sector and offer lower premiums, people will be happy to get traditional Medicare or a private plan.”

Obama repeated his claim that the Romney plan means “putting seniors at the mercy of those insurance companies.”

“We do have to lower the cost of health care, not just in Medicare and Medicaid,” Obama said, trying to pivot the discussion away from Medicare. That’s when Romney interjected and asked to stay on the topic. There were a few seconds of crosstalk among Romney, Obama, and Lehrer, but Romney just repeated himself calmly.

“Let’s go back to Medicare,” he said.

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