Running `Mediscared' In Florida

House Republican revolutionaries who think their balanced-budget accord will quell grassroots hostility should visit the Beardall Senior Center in Orlando. "I think it's sick what they're doing," snaps Alleen Towns. The retiree, a Democrat, voted last year for her Republican congressman, Bill McCollum. "I won't do that again," she vows. Neither will Betty Campbell of Orlando, a Republican and longtime McCollum backer. "I don't like what Newt's trying to do at all," she fumes.

Just a few miles away, in the land of Mickey Mouse and Grumpy, GOP delegates gathered on Nov. 18 for a much ballyhooed Presidential straw poll. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) won unimpressively with 33% of the tally, beating Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander. "A year from now," Dole crowed, "we will defeat President Clinton, and we will install in his place a conservative Republican President."

But come next November, when the ballot boxes open for real, the results may not be so comforting. GOP budget-slashing rhetoric has fueled fear in Florida's retirement communities and nursing homes. Elderly voters worry that Republicans will overhaul Medicare and Medicaid just so they can pass along a tax cut to the rich. "Our eventual nominee has an enormous challenge in dealing with that issue," concedes Florida GOP Chairman Tom Slade. "The facts are on our side, but we're getting the stew beat out of us on the emotion."

Florida is key to the GOP's strategy to win back the White House and retain control of the House of Representatives. The Sunshine State has voted Republican in 10 of the past 12 Presidential elections, and 15 of its 23 House members are Republicans. But the state also is home to the highest concentration of seniors in the nation--18% of its population. And while Florida's elderly voters are relatively evenly divided between the parties, Democratic strategists are targeting the state in an attempt to heighten elderly angst.

The Democrats' propaganda offensive--dubbed "MediScare" by Republicans--seems to be resonating. "It's very important to balance the budget, but it should be done with a thought to fairness," says retired teacher Mercedes M. Fox of Lakeland. She fears seniors could pay the price for tax cuts: "They're not reforming Medicare, they're trying to destroy it." Retired Air Force Colonel Jim Coward, a Republican and onetime supporter of the House GOP's Contract With America, worries that his health-care and military-retirement benefits will be scaled back. "The more Newt Gingrich mouths off," he says, "the less enchanted I am."

SHARED SACRIFICE? There are plenty more disenchanted: In a BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll, 43% of respondents aged 50 and older said Gingrich was doing a "poor" job--double the rate of younger people. Republican analysts insist such animosity will fade when the GOP campaign machine roars into high gear next year. "We've got to wage this [battle] over the importance of balancing the budget for our children and our grandchildren," says Dole campaign strategist William Lacy. "When that is done, it will end up a huge political plus for the Republican Party."

GOP strategists hope President Clinton will help defuse the incipient revolt by agreeing to less radical changes in Medicare. If not, the party must convince elderly voters that theirs is a shared sacrifice. Dory Olsen of Key Biscayne is ready to do her part. "It has to be done," the Republican retiree says. But former Colonel Coward is so upset about the GOP tax cuts that he says he may vote Democratic in '96. A few more like him, and Florida could send the GOP's Presidential hopeful into retirement.

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