House Democratic strategists make no secret of their belief that Medicare amounts to their political silver bullet in 2012.

President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after making a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

And so, it was not by accident that when President Obama addressed the need to reform the entitlement programs in the country in a speech today that he was very careful in the words he used to describe what should happen to Medicare.

After discussing his proposed changes — eliminating waste, making prescriptions more affordable etc — to the program, Obama made sure to draw a distinction between his plan and what Republicans would do.

“I’m not going to allow that to be an excuse for turning Medicare into a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry,” he said, adding: “We will reform Medicare and Medicaid, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment that this country has kept for generations.”

And that, Democrats hope, is the sort of distinction that voters can understand and that will keep the issue alive for them heading into 2012.

“I think that as long as we control the debate on ‘reforming’ Medicare, and have the contrast on the Ryan Plan and its desire to turn the plan into a voucher program Democrats will still have the upper hand on the issue,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “I think the trump card for Democrats is that these congressional Republicans cast a vote for the Ryan Plan. You can’t take that back.”

The danger, of course, is that independents — the unaffiliated voters who have swung wildly between the two parties in the last four years — tend to be low-information voters, meaning that any changes to Medicare supported by the Obama Administration could allow some significant muddying of the waters by Republicans.

Republicans tried a test run of that strategic approach in a Nevada special election last week.

Democrat Kate Marshall attacked Republican Mark Amodei over the Ryan plan but rather than let that hit stand — as they did in a New York special election loss earlier this year — the GOP hit back with a two-pronged strategy: 1) An Amodei ad featuring his mother as a testimonial to his commitment to the program and 2) an attack on the cuts in Medicare as proposed in President Obama’s health care law. (Here’s a terrific Wall Street Journal piece laying out the stakes of the race regarding Medicare.)

That Amodei won — and won convincingly — affirmed for Republican strategists that the waters could be muddied on Medicare in a way that made the issue something short of a sure loser for their side. Democratic strategists insisted, naturally, that it proved no such thing and promised to keep up the attacks on Medicare.

The question is whether Obama’s pledge in his speech today to “reform” Medicare will be a distinction without a difference to voters — or whether they will be able to distinguish between what Democrats want to do with the program and what Republican would do if given total control in Washington.

Democrats hoping to win back the House have to hope the latter theory is the one that wins out.

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