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WASHINGTON — Just four months into their new majority, House Republicans face a potentially defining Medicare vote this week that is sure to become a centerpiece of Democratic efforts to recapture the House in 2012 and spill into the presidential and Senate campaigns as well.

Republicans acknowledge that the vote is risky, and party strategists have warned House leaders about the dangers, aides said. But Republicans are calculating that the political ground has shifted, making the public — concerned about the mounting national debt — receptive to proposals to rein in costs by reshaping the program.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker exploring a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, said proposing a major overhaul of entitlement programs was not as politically fraught as it might have been a decade ago. But he said Republicans must be vigilant in defending their actions and mindful that Democrats were poised to attack.

“I think it is a dangerous political exercise,” Gingrich said in an interview Monday. “This is not something that Republicans can afford to handle lightly.”

Democrats are preparing to try to brand Republicans as proponents of dismantling the Medicare system if they vote for the party’s budget, which advocates converting the program from one where the government is the insurer into one where the government subsidizes retirees in private insurance plans.

Republicans say that without such changes, Medicare will not be financially sustainable in the long run as the population ages and medical costs continue to rise.

The House is scheduled to vote on the Republican budget, developed by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the Budget Committee, by the end of the week.

Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat leading his party’s House campaign operation, called the budget vote “the moment of truth” for House Republicans in 14 Democratic-leaning districts that backed John Kerry for president in 2004 and 61 that went for Barack Obama in 2008.

“We are going to use the budget to prove to Americans that every time Republicans choose to protect oil company profits while privatizing Medicare for seniors, seniors will chose Democrats,” Israel said.

He and other party strategists say they believe the Republican stance on Medicare could be particularly persuasive against incumbents in states like Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.