Four days before critical primary elections, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney outlined a far-reaching plan Friday to gradually delay Americans' eligibility for Medicare as well as Social Security.
Romney said the shift, as people live longer, is needed to steer the giant benefit programs toward economic sustainability.
Romney spoke to the Detroit Economic Club in cavernous Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions football team plays.
Romney said his proposals for Medicare and Social Security would begin in 2022, meaning no current or near-retirees would be affected. He also said he favors adjustments to curtail the growth of future benefits for the relatively well-to-do, so "lower-income seniors would receive the most generous benefits." He had described his Social Security proposals previously.
The two programs provide retirement and health care benefits to tens of millions of older Americans.
Beginning in 2022, Romney said, "we will gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age by one month each year. In the long run, the eligibility ages for both programs will be indexed to longevity so that they increase only as fast as life expectancy."
Under current law, the age for collecting full Social Security benefits is gradually rising from 65 to 67. Medicare is available at age 65. In both cases, the age is set in law, and Romney's suggestion that it be tied automatically to increases in the life expectancy of Americans would mark a major change.
In his Detroit speech, Romney also made a play for primary election support in Michigan, which votes on Tuesday along with Arizona. He said previous steps to toughen government emission standards had "provided a benefit to some of the foreign automakers" at the expense of American companies. He said future changes should be worked out between government and industry.
Campaigning in the city where he was born, Romney described himself as "a car guy" who has a Ford Mustang and a Chevy pickup and whose wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs." .
Romney is trying to break free of Rick Santorum and his other persistent rivals in the presidential race.
He is widely expected to win Arizona. Neither he nor his rivals is airing television ads in the state, a reliable sign that all sides view it as a closed case.
Although public and private polls in Michigan show Romney has erased much or all of an earlier deficit, he still faces a stiff challenge from Santorum in the state, where the disparity in television advertising is not as overwhelmingly in Romney's favor has it has been elsewhere.
It is an unwritten rule of Michigan politics that presidential candidates appear before the Detroit Economic Club. Santorum addressed the group several days ago, and officials familiar with the details said Newt Gingrich's camp had been in discussions for an appearance as late as last week.
Romney's commitment caused a spike in interest, and as a result, the former governor spoke in the huge stadium. He stood on a makeshift stage set up on the 35-yard line, with his audience on the stadium floor ringed by thousands of empty stadium seats. United Auto Workers protested outside.
The event's optics were widely criticized. When asked who chose the venue, Romney's campaign pointed to a letter from the Detroit Economic Club citing the 1,200-person crowd. The club blamed security concerns for moving the event from an atrium inside the stadium complex down onto the field. The Secret Service provides Romney's security.
Later Friday, Romney campaigned deep into more conservative western Michigan, headlining a rally at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo after stopping at a restaurant in Mount Clemens.
Santorum, meanwhile, intensified his effort to score an upset on what amounts to Romney's political home field.
The former Pennsylvania senator often stresses social issues in his campaign appearances. But public opinion polls consistently show the voters care most about the economy, and Santorum's campaign announced that he would unveil an "economic freedom agenda" that he hoped to enact in his first 100 days in office.
By contrast, Romney rarely strays from economic issues as he presses his case that as a former businessman he is best equipped to help restore an economy still recovering from the worst recession in decades.
"I not only think I have the best chance. I think I have the only chance" of defeating Obama, Romney told his midday audience, although he quickly added with a laugh, "Maybe I'm overstating it a bit."
On Medicare, Romney also supports changing the program to give beneficiaries a choice between the traditional setup and one in which the government provides them with a monthly payment that can be used to purchase private coverage.