However, if a candidate fully embraced Ryan's proposed entitlement change, he or she risks angering and alienating seniors, a critical part of the GOP's successful 2010 coalition that reclaimed control of the House. Either way, a clear position on the Medicare reform proposal in 2011 could sink them and the party's chances in 2012.
To walk that line, the race's front-runners on Tuesday carved out responses that heaped praise on Ryan, supported his budget in principle, but didn't tie themselves to his plan to change Medicare.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty complimented Ryan for "offering real leadership" but didn't specifically endorse the budget's provisions. Most of his statement, in fact, reiterated his opposition to raising the debt ceiling next month.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, used a similar tack, issuing a statement "applauding" Ryan for addressing the country's "financial crisis."
"He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control," said Romney. "Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page."
In his book, Romney mentions offering seniors a "credit" to buy insurance as one of several proposals to reduce Medicare costs, but the proposal was couched as a suggestion, not a requirement.
The written remarks were similar to those given by former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Palin voiced support for Ryan's budget "roadmap," the precursor to his budget, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, and Huckabee offered support for a voucher system in his latest book. Huckabee released the following statement on Tuesday about the Ryan plan: "It's doubtful the House's proposal will be passed in its current form, and it's unlikely that this one proposal will be the ultimate solution to all of our economic problems. But Congressman Ryan's proposal is certainly a start--one that I support as a small step to restoring fiscal sanity and reducing the size of government."
If the GOP candidates are worried about the political fallout of embracing a Medicare conversion, they have reason.
Seniors, once a lynchpin of the Democrats' electoral strategy, overwhelmingly backed the GOP last year.
Angered by the Affordable Care Act and pushed by a blitz of Republican ads decrying $500 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage programs it included, 59 percent of seniors supported Republican House candidates in 2010, according to exit polls.
But other surveys suggest a GOP push to change Medicare has the potential to shift many of them back to the Democratic Party. A Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll last September, conducted with the Pew Research Center, reported 69 percent of seniors oppose converting Medicare, with just 14 percent voicing support.