JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight's debate might be the biggest stage yet for Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, but the budget plan that bears his name has been a central topic in congressional races around the country.
Special correspondent Todd Zwillich of Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" reports on three such races in Florida and New York.
It's part of a new collaboration between the "NewsHour" and public media partners across the country. We will be bringing you reports from areas that will likely dictate the outcome of the election in a series we call Battleground Dispatches.
TODD ZWILLICH, WNYC Radio: One person sure to be watching the debate closely tonight is Paul Ryan's mother, Betty Douglas. She lives here along Florida's Atlantic Coast, where her son's budget plan and proposed changes to Medicare are front and center in two tight congressional races.
FRANK PATETTA, Florida: The vouchers, I think it would work. I think it would be very competitive. And I think it's something the American people should look into.
BARBARA MCGOFSKY, Florida: I know what Social Security is and I know what Medicare is and the affordable care. I don't know what would happen under a voucher plan.
TODD ZWILLICH: In the state's 22nd District, which spans from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, Republican Adam Hasner, a former statehouse majority leader, is fighting for an open seat.
ADAM HASNER (D), Florida Congressional Candidate: The fact is, Medicare is going bankrupt. Within the next decade, the Medicare trust fund is going to be insolvent. You have 10,000 new retirees every day, and you have 8 percent health care inflation. And those two numbers Together spell insolvency for Medicare in a decade.
TODD ZWILLICH: Senior citizens are a large voting bloc is Hasner's district and they care about Medicare. Hasner doesn't mention the Ryan budget by name, but he does support the policy. He hopes to turn what is a liability for some candidates into an opportunity to talk about debt and spending.
ADAM HASNER: I support the bipartisan plan for Medicare reform. It saves Medicare for today's seniors and it also strengthens the promise of security for future generations.
TODD ZWILLICH: Hasner's opponent is Democrat Lois Frankel, former two-term mayor of West Palm Beach.
LOIS FRANKEL (D), Florida Congressional Candidate: The fact of the matter is, to ask people when they're oldest and when they're sickest to fend for themselves with private insurance companies to me is not what the people here want to see happen.
TODD ZWILLICH: The race is being closely watched by both national parties. They're throwing money and star power at the candidates with fund-raising visits from former President Bill Clinton and Joe Biden for Frankel and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for Hasner.
Nathan Gonzales is with The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call.
NATHAN GONZALES, The Rothenberg Political Report: Democrats are using Medicare in every single congressional campaign, whether the -- whether Democrats are running against an incumbent who voted for it. It might just be a Republican who may have said nice things about it in a candidate forum. It really doesn't matter. Democrats are using this issue up and down the ballot.
TODD ZWILLICH: Democrats have seized on a key component of the Ryan plan, which would allow those under age 55 to use a capped government subsidy to buy private insurance.
Political analysts say Democrats are banking on poll-tested buzzwords, voucher and privatization, to court the votes of seniors and baby boomers.
Brian Crowley has kept a close eye on Florida politics for more than two decades. He's a former political editor of The Palm Beach Post and now writes The Crowley Political Report.
BRIAN CROWLEY, Crowley Political Report: The Democrats have very successfully grabbed the Paul Ryan plan, dubbed it a voucher, and it just rings. It's very similar to other efforts that have been made in the past where you take one key phrase and you turn it around into a political bombshell on the other side, and there's no explaining away the word vouchers very easily.
If you look at a 30-second ad that throws up the word voucher, it takes a lot more than 30 seconds to explain it away. And if you can't explain it away, you have got a problem.
TODD ZWILLICH: North of West Palm Beach in Florida's 18th District, incumbent Republican and Tea Party favorite Congressman Allen West is battling out the issue of Medicare on the stump and on the airwaves.
NARRATOR: West has socked it to seniors, voting to end Medicare as we know it.
TODD ZWILLICH: West says Democrats are relying on traditional scare tactics.
REP. ALLEN WEST (R), Florida: To continue to talk about ending Medicare as we know it, Medicare as we know it ends in 12 years. That's not Allen West. That is the actuaries and trustees of Medicare and Social Security saying those things.
TODD ZWILLICH: The issue of the Ryan plan, while a flash point now in Florida, has been years in the making in Washington. It was back in 2008 when Ryan first proposed it as a way to curb spending. Since then, a number of bipartisan efforts to tackle the debt have failed.
Last spring, President Obama took the issues of Medicare and debt to the stage in Washington.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. President: I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs.
TODD ZWILLICH: With Paul Ryan in the front row, President Obama laid bare the agenda for a political season that hadn't yet arrived.
In the primaries, former Governor Mitt Romneysaid he fully supported the Ryan plan, but he has since backed away from a complete endorsement.
MITT ROMNEY (R), Presidential Candidate: And I know anytime we talk about entitlements, people become concerned that something's going to happen that's going to change their life for the worse.
And the answer is neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare. So if you're 60 or around 60 or older, you don't need to listen any further.
TODD ZWILLICH: Meanwhile, Democrats across the country had seized on the Ryan budget well before he was on the Republican ticket.
NATHAN GONZALES: I think we have to remember that Democrats were talking about Paul Ryan and Paul Ryan's budget months before Governor Romney even chose him to be his running mate. This was already an issue. It was already in ads, and it's something that was already part of the conversation at the congressional level before Paul Ryan was named as a V.P. running mate.
TODD ZWILLICH: Here outside Buffalo, New York, Congresswoman Kathy Hochul is one of the clearest example of Democrats' national strategy. Hochul won a special election in 2011 in a Republican district running against the Ryan plan and its changes to Medicare. And national strategists thought that they saw a winning issue.
In the meantime, Hochul's district, the 27th, was redrawn to lean even more Republican. Hochul is still on the offense when it comes to the Ryan budget. But she's facing criticism from Republicans for her support of President Obama's health care reform law.
REP. KATHY HOCHUL (D), New York: When times are tough, you decide where you have got to cut. But I am telling you, we don't do it on the backs of our seniors. This is not an entitlement program, like a lot of people in Washington call it. It's not an entitlement. It's something you have all paid into since your high school job, just like I did.
TODD ZWILLICH: She's in a dead-heat race with Republican Chris Collins, a former Erie County executive and businessman. Collins says he supports changes to Medicare, but stops well short of endorsing the Ryan budget.
CHRIS COLLINS (R), New York Congressional Candidate: I have never said I support the Ryan plan. The Ryan plan is in the past. It's a Romney budget. And that's what I'm looking forward to being a part of the debate.
TODD ZWILLICH: For Hochul, the Ryan budget is a political opportunity.
REP. KATHY HOCHUL: The Ryan budget last year, when they were trying to privatize Social Security and turn it into a voucher program, it allowed me to show the crystal-clear differences between myself and my opponent a year-and-a-half ago. And the person I'm running against this time has not only said -- his words are is, the Ryan budget doesn't go far enough.
TODD ZWILLICH: These arguments are likely to have an impact well beyond a few congressional races. Lawmakers are at an impasse, and answers to these big questions, what to do about debt, spending and Medicare for the next generations, will hinge on what voters decide in November.