By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, long accused by Republicans of pursuing a socialist agenda on healthcare and other policies, tried to cast his Republican rival Mitt Romney as an extremist on Medicare and women's health issues in their debate on Tuesday.
Obama went after Romney in response a question from the audience about what distinguished the former Massachusetts governor's positions from those of another Republican, former President George W. Bush.
"George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher," Obama said. "George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.
"In some ways," Obama added, Romney had "gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy."
It was one of the few moments in the debate that put the spotlight on health issues. And it gave Obama the chance to claim that his opponent's health policies were outside the mainstream, at a time when Reuters/Ipsos polling data indicate that Romney has begun to erase the president's lead when it comes to which candidate has a better plan for healthcare.
Obama's "voucher" comment referred to a Romney plan to convert the popular Medicare insurance program for the elderly and disabled into a system that would give future beneficiaries a fixed payment to help them buy coverage from private insurers or traditional Medicare.
The approach is broadly unpopular among voters including senior citizens, who oppose the idea of a "premium support" system by 2-to-1 ratios in opinion polls.
The president sought to paint Romney's Medicare plan as an idea that would have been beyond the pale for Bush, a staunch conservative who angered seniors by proposing the partial privatization of Social Security but who also expanded Medicare - and grew the federal deficit - by adding a new drug benefit program.
Obama also sought to hit Romney on women's health issues by targeting the Republican's pledge to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, the women's health network targeted by anti-abortion activists because abortions are among the health services it provides.
Planned Parenthood says that only a small fraction of its budget funds abortions and that no federal money is involved.
Obama cast Romney's position as a liability for women who rely on Planned Parenthood for health services, including cancer screening and contraceptives.
Romney shot back with attacks on Obama's healthcare reform, which the Republicans dub "Obamacare" and deride as a government takeover of the $2.8 trillion U.S. health system.
Romney said Obama's healthcare program was holding small businesses back from creating jobs by adding to their healthcare costs and would drive those costs higher in coming years.
He also said that Obama had made no proposal to revamp Medicare, which will face financial problems in future years as healthcare costs rise and the baby boom generation retires.
Democrats say Obama's policies have extended the life of Medicare's hospital trust fund, which helps pay for hospital benefits, and that his healthcare law seeks efficiencies to improve care and control program costs.
Healthcare spending, a benchmark for costs, is forecast to rise 7.4 percent in 2014 as Obama's reforms add millions of uninsured people to the healthcare rolls, according to government forecasters.
(Editing by David Lindsey and David Brunnstrom)