By Alina Selyukh
THE VILLAGES, Florida (Reuters) - Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on Saturday put a personal spin on the debate over Medicare health coverage, bringing his elderly mother on stage in a speech to thousands of seniors at a Florida retirement community.
"When I think of Medicare, it's not just a program, it's not just a bunch of numbers, it's what my mom relies on, it's what my grandma had," Ryan, 42, said at The Villages, a conservative stronghold.
Ryan hugged his mother Betty Douglas, a 78-year-old who lives part-time in Florida. She waved to the crowd.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney's pick of Ryan as his running mate has put a spotlight on the Wisconsin congressman's best-known achievement - a budget plan that would slash Medicare costs by converting it from a program that provides guaranteed health benefits to retirees to one that provides limited subsidies to buy coverage.
But on the campaign trail, Ryan has moved away from his plan to emphasize a less-detailed Medicare proposal by Romney.
Talk of shrinking the health program for the elderly could lose the Republicans votes in Florida, a major swing state in the November 6 election and home to a higher concentration of seniors than anywhere else in the country.
Democratic President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is attacking the Ryan plan, saying it would "end Medicare as we know it." Meanwhile, Republicans accuse Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for the healthcare overhaul law that the president signed in 2010.
Ryan shared a story on Saturday of his grandmother who had Alzheimer's disease and moved in with him and his mother when he was in high school.
"Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma when we needed it then. And Medicare is there for my mom, when she needs it now. And we have to keep that guarantee," he told a crowd waving American flags and Romney/Ryan campaign signs.
"But in order to make sure that we can guarantee that promise for my mom's generation, for those baby boomers who are retiring every day, we must reform it for my generation," he said.
Medicare benefits nearly 50 million elderly and disabled Americans, but its financing will be squeezed by the growing numbers of retirees.
Concerns about the program's future have become the top healthcare issue in the 2012 election, surpassing worries about Obama's controversial healthcare law, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found earlier this week.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)
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