WASHINGTON — The dispute over American health care dominated the presidential race Sunday with Republican challenger Mitt Romney altering his stand on President Barack Obama's signature overhaul of the system, telling voters he would keep several important parts of the law that he has vowed to repeal.
Obama focused his attention in the pivotal state of Florida on the Republican ticket's stand on Medicare, the popular government health insurance program for the elderly and an issue that has been more favorable to Democrats.
Romney also said in an interview with NBC television that it was a "mistake" for congressional Republicans to go along with the White House on a budget deal that set up automatic spending cuts that include huge reductions in defense spending in the new year. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, helped steer that agreement through Congress.
In his first appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" program in more than three years, Romney said he wanted to replace the Obama health care plan with one of his own that included some of the most popular provisions of the incumbent's two-year-old law.
"I'm not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place," Romney said in the interview taped Friday and Saturday. He cited guaranteed coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions, coverage for young people up to age 26 on their parents' plans and new insurance marketplaces.
The Obama plan, dubbed "Obamacare" by opposition Republicans, used as a model Romney's overhaul of the health insurance system in Massachusetts when he was governor of the state.
Romney's Massachusetts law and the one sponsored by Obama both require people to have health insurance. That would bring younger, healthier citizens into the system, lowering the overall risk for insurance companies.
Romney now insists, in line with the stance of his Republican party, that the so-called individual mandate must be repealed, but he offered no proposals on funding his health care plan. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in suits brought by Republican opponents of the law, that the individual mandate — which establishes a tax penalty for people who don't purchase health insurance —is constitutional.
While the race remains tight, several daily tracking polls show Obama picking up a lead of a few percentage points over Romney in a contest that most voters say depends on which candidate they feel is best prepared to revive the struggling U.S. economy. Obama appeared to have benefited from last week's Democratic National Convention and speeches by his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, and former President Bill Clinton.
The Obama campaign has been trying to change the subject from the economy after a weak government report on employment on Friday, the day after the convention closed.
Romney's views on health care include major changes to the Medicare insurance program for Americans over age 65. Adopting the position of his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney has called for giving retirees a government payment that they could use to spend on traditional Medicare or a private insurance plan.
In his second day of a campaign bus tour of Florida, the president promoted a study showing that future retirees under Romney's plan would pay tens of thousands more for health care over their retirement period. The report was rejected quickly by Romney's campaign, which faulted Obama for relying on "discredited attacks" and noted that the study was conducted by Obama's former adviser on health care issues.
Obama told about 3,000 supporters in Melbourne, Florida, that if Romney had his way, Americans will pay more so insurers could make more. "No American should have to spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies," he said.
In broadcast interviews, Romney and Ryan kept the heat on Obama on the economic front, warning that across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect at the start of 2013 could devastate the defense budget. Half of the cuts are to be taken out of defense spending if Congress doesn't reach a budget solution in the next few months.
But Romney's attacks on the president for signing the deficit-reduction measure had some collateral damage for Ryan, who as House Budget Committee chairman both voted for and loudly praised the bill that created the trigger for the automatic spending cuts.
"I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose it," Romney said. "I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it."
With an eye toward undecided voters dismayed by the lackluster economic recovery, Romney and Ryan faulted Obama for failing to provide the tax relief they say holds the key to the creation of millions of jobs. Romney has pledged to lower tax rates by 20 percent for all Americans — including the wealthy.
Romney has said he will pay for those cuts by eliminating loopholes and deductions for higher-income earners. But both Republicans were unyielding in saying that specifics on their tax plan would come only after the Nov. 6 election.
Drawing attention to his opponents' reticence, Obama shot back hours later, saying Ryan and Romney deserve a failing math grade instead of accolades for bold leadership.
"It was like two plus one equals five," Obama said, prompting incredulous chuckles from the crowd in Florida.
For Obama, Florida presents a convergence of issues. Even as Obama sought to touch a nerve on health care, Romney's campaign was trying to stoke anti-Obama sentiments among the state's numerous Jewish voters and donors by drawing attention to the flap at the Democratic National Convention over whether Jerusalem should remain the capital of Israel.
White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to distinguish between what Obama has said is his personal view that Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of Israel, and longstanding U.S. foreign policy which states that the status of Jerusalem should be part of final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Romney attended church services in Boston Sunday before practice sessions for the first of three debates with Obama scheduled for October. A rally Monday in Mansfield, Ohio, will be followed by a Chicago fundraiser. On Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Romney plans to speak to a veterans group in Reno, Nevada.