WAUKESHA, Wis. - Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, parted ways Sunday, a move that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the newly minted Republican presidential ticket as the duo scrambles to build support in key swing states.
The two candidates boarded separate planes following a joint appearance in eastern Wisconsin Sunday evening. Romney headed to Florida and Ryan to Iowa and the two will campaign separately until the Republican convention Aug. 27.
The split provoked immediate speculation that the Romney campaign isn't eager to bring Ryan to Florida, where the large bloc of senior-citizen voters may be less receptive to the seven-term congressman's proposal to remake Medicare.
Ryan has proposed converting Medicare to a "premium support" program that would help beneficiaries buy private insurance while gradually raising the eligibility age. Democrats are already demonizing Ryan's plan, saying it would "end Medicare as we know it."
Kevin Madden, a top Romney aide, said the candidates are splitting up to cover more ground. The campaign isn't worried about sending Ryan to Florida. In fact, aides said late Sunday, there are now plans to send Ryan to central Florida, where he would challenge President Obama on the need to fix Medicare.
"He will highlight President Obama's record of slashing Medicare for current Florida seniors to fund Obamacare," Romney spokesman Brendan Buck said. "He will also note that the Romney-Ryan ticket is the only one with a bipartisan plan to strengthen Medicare for today and tomorrow's seniors."
Romney earlier endorsed Ryan's budget plan, of which Medicare reforms are one part, but his aides insisted Sunday that Romney isn't bound by what Ryan proposed and would be highlighting his own plan for the country.
"Gov. Romney is at the top of the ticket and Gov. Romney's plan is something Ryan supports," Madden said.
Romney advisers are hoping Ryan's middle-class, Catholic upbringing will boost Romney, a Mormon with a privileged upbringing in the Midwest and elsewhere.
"Small-town Iowa, the suburbs of Philadelphia" are places where Ryan can pick up critical swing votes, one top adviser said.
On their second day as a team, Romney and Ryan on Sunday attracted massive crowds at campaign stops in North Carolina, another swing state, before flying to Ryan's home state of Wisconsin.
Jim Hall, of Mooresville, N.C., said Ryan will bring energy to the campaign, but noted that Ryan's Medicare proposal will leave him open to Democratic attacks.
"I think the pluses of Ryan on the ticket outweigh the minuses, but there are definitely minuses" Hall, 72, said.
Ryan defended his Medicare plan in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday, saying, "My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida."
University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said Ryan won't necessarily doom the GOP ticket in Florida because senior voters there are almost evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats.
"Florida seniors are much more diverse politically than they used to be," MacManus told The Washington Examiner.
And Democrats will eventually have to go beyond criticism of Ryan and produce their own Medicare plan, which also could anger seniors, she said.
"The real question mark is which campaign can convince the boomers and seniors that their plan to protect Medicare is the best," MacManus said.