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To the presidential race now, and one of the sharpest differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney, what they think of the Republican budget put together by Congressman Paul Ryan. With its sharp cuts in domestic spending and lower tax rates, the budget has Romney's full support, while its earned harsh words from the president. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, both sides see it as a winning issue come November.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The Obama campaign likes to call it the Romney-Ryan budget, and Romney isn't objecting. On the campaign trail in Wisconsin, where Ryan was a constant presence at his side, Romney embraced both the plan and its author.
MITT ROMNEY: Like he said. We're on the same page.
LIASSON: Linking himself to Ryan's tax cuts and structural reforms for Medicare was a bold conservative move says Vin Weber, an informal advisor to the Romney campaign.
VIN WEBER: It helped with the Republican base and it helped unify the Republican Party more broadly than that. But I think at the end of the day, the question is, will a serious approach to reforming Medicare and thus dealing with our long term debt problem be a winning issue in the fall or won't it be? I genuinely fear for the country if it's not, but it is an open question.
LIASSON: So there is some risk for Romney, and President Obama is trying to make it as big a risk as possible.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a Trojan horse disguised as deficit reduction plans. It is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.
LIASSON: Ryan and Romney say they'll balance out the lower tax rates for the wealthy by eliminating tax breaks, but they haven't identified a single one. And as long as they leave that part of their plan blank, says Democratic strategist Jeff Garon, the Obama campaign is free to fill it in.
JEFF GARON: In the world of compare and contrast politics, the Ryan budget creates a backdrop - you're talking about the possibility of Romney shifting more of the tax burden onto the middle class from the very wealthy even as also cutting things that middle class families depend on, including student loans, job training programs at community colleges, and Medicare benefits for the elderly.
LIASSON: But Romney's embrace of the Ryan plan might help him with one key group of voters, says Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.
JIM KESSLER: Independents are extremely deficit sensitive. We just came out of poll where once again they rated it by far the number one issue that they're both angry about and that they're worried about. And I think the Ryan budget puts it in play in the presidential race more than it had been in the past few months.
LIASSON: In current polls, independent voters favor the president, but in the latest ABC Washington Post poll, Romney got higher marks than President Obama on handling the deficit. Of course the deficit and tax reform aren't just campaign issues. They're urgent national problems that will have to be addressed by the next president and Congress. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget thinks the Obama/Romney debate may make that harder to do.
MAYA MACGUINEAS: It's all fine and good to talk about cutting unnecessary spending or raising taxes on the wealthy, because those things sound harmless to most people.
LIASSON: MacGuineas worries that after a year of deficit commissions and super committees educating the public, the candidates are taking the debate backward, because neither is talking about the hard parts of budget and tax reform.
MACGUINEAS: And both of them need to. The Obama campaign hasn't gone nearly far enough yet in talking about how it would specifically reform and fix entitlement programs. And likewise, the Romney campaign has talked a lot about the rates it wants to lower, but not at all the tax breaks that it wants to get rid of to offset those costs. And if we go through this entire campaign and don't talk about the tough measures of fixing the budget, then nobody's going to understand what the real kinds of choices are.
LIASSON: And voters will be unprepared for the kinds of sacrifices they'll surely be asked to make after the election. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.