WASHINGTON — The question sounded simple enough: Would you vote for or against a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare?
But Mike Haridopolos — president of the Florida state senate and a U.S. Senate hopeful calling in to a St. Augustine radio station — wouldn't answer, calling the question "hypothetical."
The frustrated host eventually hung up on him.
Haridopolos — one of three Republicans jockeying in the GOP primary to take on Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson — called the plan developed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a "good start" and said it "has a lot of merit."
But Haridopolos' refusal to be pinned down in the radio interview was a stark reminder of the "third rail" potency that Medicare wields in Florida — the state with the highest proportion of people over 65 in the country. Some 3.2 million Floridians depend on the federal health insurance program, second only to California's 4.4 million.
The issue's sensitivity in Florida sends a signal across the nation.
Though every House Republican voted for the Ryan plan, it's exposed a rift in the GOP, with some fearing the Ryan plan hands Democrats a perfect foil. But those who have expressed reservations have quickly backpedaled: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took back his depiction of the Ryan plan as "right wing socialism" after an attack by conservatives.
Democrats have pointed to their unexpected victory in a congressional seat in a reliably Republican district in western New York state as proof that voters oppose the measure. The Democrat in the race repeatedly hammered the Republican for backing the Ryan plan; but Republicans note there also was a third party candidate in the race who siphoned off conservative votes.
A number of conservative Republicans argue it was the candidate, not the issue, that caused the GOP defeat in New York, and that with a sputtering economy and looming federal deficit, voters are ready to hear tough talk.
Beyond the political finger-pointing, there's a problem. Medicare trustees say the program will run out of money in 2024.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, however, suggests more than half of respondents opposed the Ryan plan — with opposition highest among senior citizens, even though the plan would affect those 55 and younger.
The plan wouldn't affect those older than 55, but it would give future Medicare beneficiaries a government subsidy to purchase private health insurance. Independent analysts have concluded that beneficiaries would end up paying more — and Democrats highlighted a congressional study that suggested no state beneficiaries would pay more than those in Florida.
According to the analysis done for the Joint Economic Committee chaired by Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, while the increase would vary state by state, residents in all states would see out-of-pocket expenses more than double when they turn 65 in 2022. Florida's increase: $7,383.
Haridopolos, whose radio interview unleashed a daylong torrent of criticism from conservative blogs, answered the question by day's end: He'd vote "no" on the Ryan plan, a move that delighted his GOP rivals but could blunt a Nelson line of attack — if Haridopolos secures the GOP nomination.
In the competitive GOP Senate primary, Adam Hasner, a former state House majority leader, challenged his rivals to embrace the plan, saying his only criticism would be that the plan — part of a budget proposal aimed at taming the deficit, "just doesn't go far enough, fast enough." Rival George LeMieux praised the House plan, but prefers his own plan, which he said would balance the budget faster.
Florida politicians on both sides have successfully used — or misused — the Medicare issue to battle their opponents. In 1994, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles famously suggested in a series of late-campaign robocalls that his Republican challenger, Jeb Bush, considered Medicare "welfare."
And in the 2010 election, the 60 Plus Association, a conservative leaning group that touts itself as an alternative to AARP, ran TV ads against several Florida Democrats, accusing them of cutting $500 billion from Medicare for voting for the Democrats' health care overhaul.
That attack line is being revived again this year by Republicans looking to take out Nelson.
Fact-checking organizations like Politifact have reviewed that claim and found it wanting: The 60 Plus ads rated a "barely true" from Politifact, which found the $500 billion isn't an actual cut, but reductions to future spending for a program that would still grow significantly in the next 10 years.
Democrats have cast a few fouls of their own. Three fact-checking organizations scored as inaccurate Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's assertion that the GOP plan would "throw you to the wolves" and permit insurance companies to deny seniors coverage — or drop them for pre-existing conditions.
That followed an ad by a Democratic-leaning group that depicted a Paul Ryan-like figure sending an elderly woman in a wheelchair plunging off a cliff.
"Fear works as a political weapon," said Fort Lauderdale Republican strategist Justin Sayfie, who worked as an aide to Gov. Bush and is now supporting GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty. "It's the most potent weapon there is."
Pawlenty said he'd support the plan only after several days of questioning.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington