BOSTON – With swing voters in his sights, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is tacking toward the center on health care and defense spending now that he's put his final partisan hurdle behind him and the sprint to Nov. 6 is underway.
Romney said in an interview that aired Sunday that he would retain some popular parts of the 2010 health care law he has pledged to repeal, saying the features he would keep are common-sense measures in what he calls an otherwise costly, inefficient plan.
The former Massachusetts governor also faulted congressional Republicans for going along with the White House on a budget deal that has set up automatic spending cuts that include huge reductions in defense spending – a deal his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, helped steer.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama focused Floridians' attention on the Republican ticket's stand on Medicare, an issue that's been more favorable to Democrats.
Romney's campaign dismissed the idea that the comments were a lurch toward the middle now that the Republican convention, the last partisan event of the campaign, has passed, even as Romney was visiting the most competitive states on the election map.
"I'm not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place," Romney told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview taped Friday and Saturday. He cited coverage for people with medical conditions and new insurance marketplaces.
Romney's aides said that was consistent with his previous position that those who haven't had a gap in coverage shouldn't be denied coverage.
But the comments brought renewed attention to the similarities between Obama's plan and the one Romney championed when he was Massachusetts governor, which included protections for health conditions and an individual mandate that the Republican has since railed against.
The GOP nominee, who attended church in Boston before debate practice sessions Sunday, didn't offer specifics for how he'd deal with the affordability of insurance, but suggested competition would help bring down costs. For seniors, Romney has called for restructuring Medicare by giving retirees a government payment that they would use to choose between traditional Medicare and private insurance.
Romney aides dismissed the idea that the candidate's comments about the defense cuts or health care were an effort to appear less partisan with the race for undecided voters now under way.
Spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney was sharper in his criticism of Obama than he was of House Republicans on military cuts. Madden also said calling for the repeal of the 2010 health care law and supporting some of its provisions are consistent.
"Repealing Obamacare is a focus because it costs too much and the taxes and regulations are hurting small business. That's common sense," Madden said. "Affordability and portability of health care insurance aren't partisan issues."
Obama, campaign for a second day in Florida, tried to move past a weak jobs report Friday and highlight the impact of Romney's proposals on older workers and those nearing retirement.
The president promoted a study showing that future retirees under Romney's plan would pay tens of thousands of dollars more for health care over their retirement period. The report was rejected quickly by Romney's campaign, which faulted Obama for relying on "discredited attacks" and noted the study was conducted by Obama's former adviser.
Obama told about 3,000 supporters in Melbourne, Fla., that if Romney had his way, Americans will pay more so insurers could make more. "No American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies," he said.
In Ohio, another critical battleground, Vice President Joe Biden piled on, mocking Republicans for saying they want to protect Medicare and claiming that under Romney's leadership, benefits would be slashed.
Hoping to put a human face on the issue, Obama ate breakfast at a Florida cafe with two older couples concerned about Medicare costs. But a brief interaction with another patron and Romney supporter underscored what polls show is a persistent problem for Obama with voters who like him personally but question his economic competence.
"I always thought he was a very personable person, nice person," said 73-year-old Bill Terrell of Cocoa, Fla. "I just don't think he's doing a good job on the economy."
In broadcast interviews, Romney and Ryan kept the heat on Obama on the economic front, warning that across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the start of 2013 could devastate the defense budget. Half of the cuts are expected to come from the Pentagon if Congress doesn't reach a budget solution in the next few months.
But Romney's attacks on the president for signing the deficit-reduction measure had some collateral damage for his running mate, who as House Budget Committee chairman both voted for and loudly praised the bill that created the trigger for the automatic spending cuts.
"I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose it," Romney said. "I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it."
With an eye toward undecided voters dismayed by the lackluster recovery, Romney and Ryan faulted Obama for failing to provide the tax relief they say holds the key to the creation of millions of jobs. Romney has pledged to lower tax rates for by 20 percent for all Americans – including the wealthy.
Romney has said he'll pay for those cuts by eliminating loopholes and deductions for higher-income earners. But both Republicans were unyielding in saying that the specifics would come only after the election.
"Mitt Romney and I, based on our experience, think the best way to do this is to show the framework, show the outlines of these plans, and then to work with Congress to do this," Ryan said on ABC's "This Week."
Drawing attention to his opponents' reticence, Obama shot back hours later, saying Ryan and Romney deserve a failing math grade instead of accolades for bold leadership.
"They need to stay after school. They need to get some extra study hall in there. No recess for you," Obama said.
For Obama, Florida presents a convergence of issues. Even as Obama sought to touch a nerve on health care, Romney's campaign was trying to stoke anti-Obama sentiments among the state's numerous Jewish voters and donors by drawing attention to the flap at the Democratic National Convention over whether the party platform should define Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to distinguish between what Obama has said is his personal view – that Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of Israel – and longstanding U.S. foreign policy, which states that the status of Jerusalem should be part of final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Also on the minds of some Florida residents was the future of the U.S. space program. Greeting Obama as he arrived at his rally in Melbourne were a knot of protesters holding anti-Obama signs, including one that read: "Obama lied. Space Coast died."
Melbourne, home of the Kennedy Space Center and the Florida Institute of Technology, has been hard hit by cutbacks in the space program. Obama's campaign cast blame on President George W. Bush and House Republicans, while Obama said his proposals to put the U.S. on the cutting edge of space exploration would inspire the next generation.
Romney, who took a break from the campaign trail during the Democratic convention last week, has returned to the most competitive states, with recent stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia. A rally Monday in Mansfield, Ohio, will be followed by a Chicago fundraiser. On Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Romney plans to speak to a veterans group in Reno, Nev.
Kuhnhenn reported from Florida. Associated Press writers Matthew Daly in Milford, Ohio, and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed.
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