By Matthew Heimer
Much to the chagrin of network TV programmers, tonight’s prime-time debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won’t be the last. But since next Monday’s debate in Boca Raton will focus on foreign policy, tonight’s affair might offer voters their final opportunity to watch the two rivals go head-to-head on issues related to retirement — especially their conflicting views on Medicare.
Since the first debate, in which Romney looked sharp and detail-oriented and the president often looked like a refugee from Madame Tussauds, most national polls have shown Romney erasing some or all of the early-fall lead Obama had with voters. Medicare is one of the few topics on which the president still holds a lead (although, that too, has narrowed — from 14 points to 9, for example, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week).
Many of the president’s supporters have urged him to seize opportunities to paint Romney as a radical conservative, and Medicare might afford him a chance to do that. Given the opportunity, he’s likely to raise the argument that the Romney campaign’s Medicare “premium support” reform plan amounts to a voucher system, in which future seniors — those who are under 55 today — will receive a not-big-enough subsidy and be forced to buy insurance on the private market. That attack, in turn, could afford Romney another opportunity to advance an argument that appeared to work for him two weeks ago — namely, that Obama’s health-care reforms are already set to impose $716 billion in cuts in Medicare benefits on today’s seniors.
Granted, it’s no sure thing that the candidates will even get a chance to talk about Medicare. Tonight’s debate, in Hempstead, N.Y., uses a town hall format, focusing on questions from local voters, selected by the Gallup polling group, who are either undecided or open to changing their minds. Undecided voters tend to skew young — by one estimate, four in 10 are age 34 or younger — so older voters may not be especially well-represented tonight. For a broader overview of what to expect tonight, see this overview from MarketWatch’s Robert Schroeder.