By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in the U.S. Congress urged his troops to go on the offensive against Democratic attacks on their party's vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, and Ryan's plan to revamp the Medicare health program for the elderly.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, in a conference call with Republican lawmakers late on Tuesday, also said they must remained focused on the ailing U.S. economy.
"That's still what this year is ultimately about in the minds of the American people," Boehner said, according to Republican aides familiar with the call.
By selecting Representative Ryan as his running mate on Saturday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney appeared to energize President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.
They have hammered Ryan on his plan to cut Medicare, arguing that it would threaten the viability of the popular program that millions of older Americans are dependent on. Republicans argue that changes are needed to maintain the program while reducing record government debt.
Democrats are guardedly hopeful that Medicare replaces Obama's unpopular handling of the economy as the campaign's top issue, and figure it may even help them retain the Senate and win back the House in the November 6 elections.
Political analysts say it is too early to know how much the Medicare debate may reshape, if at all, the presidential and congressional elections. But they say they are watching.
Boehner made his appeal in what Republican party aides described as "a routine call" with members during their August recess.
According to aides, Boehner said Romney, in picking Ryan as his running mate, "sent the signal that he's ready to provide the adult leadership the country wants."
Ryan chairs the House Budget Committee and has been a key party leader in drafting plans to shrink government and reduce deficits, largely by revamping entitlement programs like Medicare and cutting deeply into other government services while at the same time reducing taxes.
In his conference call, Boehner said, "The pundits are buzzing that with Paul on the ticket, the Democrats are going to attack us on Medicare. Well, here's a news flash: they were gonna do that anyway."
"The best defense on Medicare is a good offense. And Paul Ryan gives us the ability to play offense," Boehner said, according to Republican aides.
The speaker argued that Republicans, unlike Democrats, are the ones trying to save Medicare and that they must make that point with voters, Republican aides said.
Boehner said, "The president is desperate to shift the conversation away from his record on jobs and the economy," and that Republicans must not allow him to do so.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Stacey Joyce)