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Presidential Campaign Ads Target Seniors In Fla., Younger Voters In N.H.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan campaigns with his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, on Saturday in The Villages, Fla. The Mitt Romney campaign has created an ad from the event.
Phelan M. Ebenhack

Ask your average American about Florida, and you'll hear something like this: It's hot, it has Disney World, and lots of old people live there.

And since the weather and Mickey Mouse don't make good attack ads, both presidential campaigns are trying to scare the bejeezus out of Florida's senior population over Medicare.

In New Hampshire, by comparison, President Obama's campaign is currently aiming at young voters — specifically those who might need student loans — and their parents, by trying to link the Republican ticket to state GOP-led cuts to higher education funding.

The dueling strategies show how the campaigns are tailoring their ad message to specific voters, especially in the battleground states.

Florida And Medicare

In his first trip to the Sunshine State as a vice presidential candidate last weekend, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin focused almost exclusively on Medicare.

Ryan spoke at The Villages, a sprawling 55-plus retirement community. He and his 78-year-old mother (who lives in Florida) stood under a banner reading, "Protect and Strengthen Medicare."

"We will end the raid of Medicare, we will restore the promise of this program," Ryan said, accusing Obama of taking $716 billion out of the program to help pay for the Affordable Care Act. The Romney campaign used Ryan's meeting with his mother, and the claim of $716 billion in Medicare cuts (which the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated " Mostly False"), to create a Web ad.

The Obama campaign thinks it has a winner subject with Medicare, too. Its new radio ad in Florida features elderly narrators saying, "In Florida, they're already talking about how the Ryan-Romney plan will end Medicare and replace it with a voucher."

Again, PolitiFact gives this claim a " Mostly False" rating.

Seniors make up about a quarter of the electorate in Florida — a higher percentage than in almost any other state.

But political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida questions the senior focus, especially for Obama.

"It's stupid," she said.

MacManus says most seniors have already made up their minds. And in general, they're befuddled by the conflicting claims about Medicare.

"The nonstop ads on Medicare are confusing them," she said, "so they end up believing their own candidate."

She says Obama won Florida narrowly in 2008 by turning out young people and minorities — and that's where he should focus his efforts.

New Hampshire and Student Loans

The radio spot airing in New Hampshire, called " Parent's Voice," takes aim at the Ryan budget plan and its cuts to Pell Grants, the federally funded higher education aid program.

Narrated by a concerned-sounding mother worried about her son ("Andrew goes back to school pretty soon; we sure need that Pell Grant"), the ad is out to link the Romney/Ryan ticket to cuts in higher education spending made by local Republicans.

Democrats say the Ryan budget that passed the House but failed in the Senate would have cost 1 million students their Pell Grants. Republicans says reductions to the grants, which max out at $5,550, would not be immediate or across the board.

The Romney campaign, whose ads in New Hampshire have focused on the economy, says the ads are an attempt to distract from the president's own record.

"Under President Obama, school quality has declined, college tuition costs have skyrocketed and his economic policies have made it harder to get jobs," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.

So why is this ad airing in New Hampshire? Here are a few reasons:

New Hampshire has always been stingy when it comes to funding higher education, but last year the GOP-controlled Legislature made the deepest cuts to state higher education funding in the country, 42 percent. And the state already ranked last in the country in per capita college and university funding.

According to the Project on Student Debt, New Hampshire also ranks first in average student debt, at $31,048 per capita, and second in proportion of students carrying debt, at 74 percent. With the new budget cuts driving up the cost of attending a state-funded school by around 10 percent, those numbers aren't likely to improve.

New Hampshire Democrats have made the cuts to higher education a rallying cry against a state Legislature they say is "too extreme." There is some indication that argument may be taking root. A University of New Hampshire survey center poll in April found that voters consider the Republican Legislature the state's second-largest problem.

Whether the Obama campaign intends this ad to mainly shore up Democratic support or to sow doubt among potential swing voters is unclear. The campaign isn't commenting.

University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith thinks the message is likely to resonate mostly with people already voting for Obama. But, he says, the ads could also work among a coveted segment of the 2012 electorate: middle-aged female swing voters.

"They are probably trying to get the women, who tend to be more concerned about these issues then men are," Smith said.

Scott Finn is news director at Public Broadcasting in Tampa, Fla. Josh Rogers is a political reporter for.

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Scott Finn
Scott Finn is a former news director at WUSF Public Media, which provides in-depth reporting for Tampa Bay and all of Florida.
Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000 and serves as NHPRâââ
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