The presidential campaign continued its descent into acrimony Wednesday, even as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rushed to outmaneuver each other on a new front: Medicare.
Romney began the day with a withering criticism of Obama on “CBS This Morning” in which he charged that Obama was driven by "division and attack and hatred," and was “running just to hang onto power.”
The Obama campaign called Romney “unhinged,” to which the Republican candidate responded: "I think unhinged would have to characterize what we've seen from the president's campaign," the Associated Press reported.
Later, Obama made a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, where he was joined by his wife, Michelle. He said the Republicans “are throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks."
The drastic change in tone is remarkable because it comes just a few days after Romney introduced Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a budget wonk, as his running mate.
The announcement was supposed to signal a new focus on serious policy matters. Instead, it seems to have made things worse.
It began on Tuesday, when Vice President Joe Biden told a crowd in Danville, Va., that Republicans’ goal of loosening regulations on Wall Street would "put y'all back in chains."
That sparked GOP outrage. Romney said on Wednesday that Biden’s comment was "one more example of a divisive effort to keep from talking about the issues."
The negativity has continued on the airwaves and online, where both campaigns, and their proxies, have run ads criticizing the other, some of them using false claims. One, run by the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action, suggests Romney was responsible for the cancer death of a steelworker who lost his job at a plant shut down by Romney’s venture capital firm. Journalists and fact-checking groups have labeled the ad misleading.
Ads in support of Romney have also stretched the truth about Obama, according to watchdog groups. One of them accuses Obama of gutting the federal welfare-to-work program. Another tries to make Obama look clueless about job creation.
Since Ryan’s entrance into the race, Obama has been trying to link Romney to the policies espoused by Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and known for his austere fiscal plans. Among the first targets is Ryan's proposal for Medicare, which would transform it into a voucher system for those younger than 55.
“Mr. Romney and his running mate have a very different plan. They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program,” Obama said in Dubuque, the last stop on a three-day bus tour of the swing state. “That means seniors would no longer have the guarantee of Medicare; they’d get a voucher to buy private insurance.”
He added, “Their plan makes seniors pay more so they can give another tax cut to millionaires and billionaires.”
But Romney and Ryan aren't shying from the topic. They are going after Obama aggressively, accusing him of raiding Medicare to pay for his health care reforms.
Ryan told Fox News Channel that he and Romney believe Medicare can be a winning issue for Republicans "because we're the ones who are offering a plan to save Medicare, to protect Medicare, to strengthen Medicare.'
But the budgets he has written in the House both called for leaving in place the cuts to Medicare that he now criticizes, the AP reported. Romney has consistently favored restoring the funds.
Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner criticized Ryan's comments.
"First, he attacked the president for the very same Medicare savings that he includes in his own budget," Kanner said in a statement. "In the same breath, he falsely claimed that the Romney-Ryan budget protects Medicare — in fact, their plan would end Medicare as we know it, leaving seniors with nothing but a voucher in place of the guaranteed benefits they rely on today."
The Obama campaign released a web video Wednesday with the same message. It features news commentators and liberal analysts such as economist Paul Krugman declaring that Ryan's House Republican budget would mean millions of older Americans would be unable to afford health care.
The video also alleges that Romney lied about Obama's record on Medicare and says Obama's proposal cuts payments to Medicare providers but offers more benefits to Medicare participants.
Romney did not hold any public campaign events on Wednesday. He held private fundraisers in North Carolina and Alabama.
Ryan, for his part, at a Wednesday rally at his alma mater of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, invited debate over his House budget's proposal of Medicare cuts and slammed Obama's campaign.
"We want this debate, we need this debate and we will win this debate," Ryan told his audience. He decried Obama for what he called a "raid of Medicare to pay for Obamacare" via payroll taxes.
"It's not right. He knows it. He can't defend it and that is why he's resorting to this kind of distracting and an election based on anger and division," Ryan said.
Biden appeared in Blacksburg, Va., where he told a rally that he and Obama were confident about running against Romney and Ryan’s fiscal policies.
The Obama campaign also signaled Wednesday that it was moving beyond the Medicare issue. It plans to run ads in states it believes are susceptible to other elements of Ryan’s budget plans, the AP reported.
That includes states with large military and veterans populations like Florida, Ohio and Virginia, and states where clean-energy industries are expanding, including Colorado and Iowa.
The campaign also launched an ad Tuesday in five states — Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia — that links Romney directly to the Ryan budget's impact on college grants.