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Medicare has become a red-hot issue in the 2012 elections, with both sides accusing the other of endangering the program’s future ability to provide health care for older Americans. But three just-released polls cut through the campaign rhetoric and provide insights into what voters are thinking. Here are three key findings:

Medicare is really, really important to Americans.

A new Associated-Press Roper GfK poll makes clear that Americans are deeply interested in what the candidates have to say about Medicare, with 72 percent saying that it is an “extremely important” or “very important” issue to them.  (That fits with a recent AARP poll that found that nearly six in 10 still-working boomers believe they’ll have to rely even more heavily on Medicare as they get older.)

Most Americans aren’t looking for major changes in Medicare.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll hits this point pretty hard: More than half of those surveyed (55 percent) say that Medicare either needs only slight modifications or no modifications at all. Of course, whether those surveyed would make distinctions between how Medicare basically functions and the need to make the program solvent isn’t clear. But in comparison, only 27 percent would like to see major changes in Medicare, and just 15 percent want a complete overhaul.

Another new poll, by the Pew Research Center, found that working-age boomers favor keeping Medicare as it is by 49 to 35 percent. But support for Medicare as is cuts across age lines. Overall, 51 percent of respondents in the Pew survey said it is more important to keep Medicare — and Social Security — unchanged than it is to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Voter support for the idea of Medicare premium support is weak.

According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 15 percent of registered voters support proposals to eventually replace the current Medicare system with so-called “premium support” — what some opponents call “vouchers.” Twice as many — 30 percent — call it a bad idea. Four percent were unsure how they felt about the plan, and 51 percent of voters had no opinion.

And while the large number of undecided and no-opinions suggests at least a possibility that more people might possibly come to favor premium support, there aren’t any signs of that happening. In fact, public opinion seems to be going the other way. The percentage of voters who are against premium support has risen significantly since an April NBC/WSJ poll, from 21 percent then to 31 percent now.

While clearly Medicare is now an issue on the front burner of the presidential campaign, its impact in some battleground states may be less certain. The New York Times reports this morning that the Romney-Ryan proposal for premium support “is deeply unpopular in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, according to new polls that found that more likely voters in each state trust President Obama to handle Medicare.” And the Washington Post reports that some new polls show Romney gaining ground against Obama in the same three states. —Patrick J. Kiger

Photo: Joe Raedle/2011 Getty Images

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