Where do the Republican candidates stand on Social Security and Medicare? The answer is important, because the next president - Democrat or Republican - will inherit the call for changes in those programs to whittle federal spending.
On such controversial subjects, pinning down exactly where the candidates stand isn't always easy. Newt Gingrich, for example, initially dismissed Rep. Paul Ryan's dramatic reform proposals as "right-wing social engineering." Months later Gingrich unveiled his own plan to revise what he called the "welfare empire." In Monday night's debate, Rick Santorum called Gingrich's idea to privatize Social Security "fiscal insanity." What's a voter to think?
Social Security and Medicare matter in a big way in states like South Carolina and Florida, which are graying fast. In South Carolina, 14 percent of the population is over 65. In Florida, it's 18 percent. The average age of GOP primary voters in each state is 64 and 66, respectively.
Not surprisingly, Medicare and Social Security play a big role in the health and financial security of older residents of these states that vote next (South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31).
· More than 40 percent of older South Carolinians would fall below the poverty line if they didn't have Social Security.
· In Florida, a third of older people depend on Social Security as their only source of income.
· In both states, about 45 percent of primary voters say they rely on Medicare for their health care.
Voters care deeply about these programs even as they fret about the federal deficit. And among GOP primary voters, there is, at least for now, a line in the sand: 7 in 10 are opposed to cuts in Social Security and Medicare as a way to reduce the deficit.
To help nail down where the candidates stand on these pivotal issues, read "Meet the GOP Presidential Candidates."