He’s just the running mate. But Americans could be more eager to see Paul Ryan when he takes the stage Wednesday at the Republican National Convention than the man at the top of the ticket, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Ryan is the newest thing in politics right now, the still largely unknown subject of wild enthusiasm among conservatives, the target of unrelenting scorn from Democrats. In a prime-time speech Wednesday, he gets to tell his own story unfiltered by the news media. It will be a critical test, as he works to drive his party to a march-to-the-polls frenzy while not doing anything that could turn off independents and suburban moderates who could decide a close election.
Young, attractive and upbeat, the Republican vice presidential nominee easily energizes Republican activists – some of whom question Romney’s conservative credentials – largely for his blueprint to slash the federal government.
“I adore him,” gushed Kathy Hildebrand, a former math teacher and a convention delegate from Georgia. “He offers real solutions.”
But it’s precisely those solutions – policy proposals that include overhauling Medicare – that make him less popular with Democrats and moderates needed to win in November.
“His back is to the wall, frankly,” said John Zogby, an independent pollster. “He’s going to have a rough time going to the middle.”
The middle – and maybe more – will be watching. Slightly more Americans are interested in hearing from Ryan that Romney, according to a poll Tuesday from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Pew found that 46 percent were very or somewhat interested in hearing Ryan’s speech, while 44 percent felt the same about Romney’s speech.
Romney’s pick of Ryan as his running mate elated conservatives skeptical about Romney’s bona fides and surprised analysts who predicted that the cautious Romney would opt for a safer pick, without the track record of proposals to overhaul popular entitlements such as Medicare, the popular health insurance program for the elderly. The program faces insolvency without changes, but Democrats hammer most Republican proposals and Ryan’s in particular as a threat to the program rather than a help.
Initial polls showed Romney may have gained a point or two with Ryan – in line with recent vice presidential choices. Zogby said Ryan has helped Romney improve slightly in the polls to catch up with President Barack Obama. But, he said, while polls shows he appeals more to younger voters, he appeals less to older voters, possibly because of concerns about changes to Medicare.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has quickly emerged as one of the party’s top policy thinkers and leaders, touting spending cuts, tax cuts to spur growth and changes in entitlements.
His budget plan is regarded as a blueprint for conservatives. It would repeal the 2010 federal health care law, give workers younger than 55 the option of taking a government voucher to buy private insurance rather than Medicare, give states more say over Medicaid, the program for the poor, and limit government spending to 20 percent of the economy by 2015. With the recession inflating demand for government services, federal spending has reached as much as 24 percent of the total economy.
But Ryan remains largely unknown outside those who closely watch politics – even to many in his own state outside his Janesville-centered congressional district. In Tampa this week, convention delegates sometimes confused him with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Ryan, the youngest of four children, became interested in politics – and policy – early on, when he was an intern and aide on Capitol Hill, becoming a protege of the late Jack Kemp, a former Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate. In high school, Ryan was elected class president, which gave him a seat on the school board, his first taste of public office.
He worked briefly in the family construction business founded by his great-grandfather and moved back to his childhood neighborhood. He ran for Congress on a campaign opposing tax increases and supporting gun rights, won easily, and became the second-youngest member of the House of Representatives at the time. He grew up Catholic, and his religious beliefs have played an important part in his politics, guiding his positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Democrats are betting that Ryan’s plan is a ripe target that could turn off the independent voters that determine elections.
“Paul Ryan really speaks to that kind of tea party, more libertarian wing of the Republican Party,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a top Democratic spokesman. “He’s been a real leader in the tea party Republican House in trying to get everything they can to slow our economy and our jobs recovery before the elections.’’
Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that some Republicans are running away from Ryan’s plans because they are so unpopular with Americans.
“I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch them dance around issues,” Gibbs said near the Republican convention site. “I think they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do in this convention. ... I think Paul Ryan has a lot to explain to the American people, because Mitt Romney basically outsources his party platform and budget to his vice presidential candidate, and now it’s now up to them to spend the next three days on how to make it palatable.”
But Republican activists in Tampa said Ryan should be able to easily appeal to independents, even Democrats. Some said they wished he had run for president, and that they liked Romney more after he selected Ryan as his running mate.
Wayne Papke, a self-described tea party Republican and delegate from North Dakota, said Ryan will be able to unify Republicans and Democrats because he has shown in Congress than can he can work with both parties.
“Paul Ryan is my hero,” said Papke, a financial adviser. “I wanted him and we got him. He’s going to unify. He’s a unifier. He’s done it in Congress and he has a lot of allies.”