WAUKESHA, Wis. — After two full days of campaigning together, it has become clear that Rep. Paul Ryan is doing many of the things that Mitt Romney couldn’t do for himself.
The Republican presidential ticket is drawing huge and at times electric crowds, at long last energizing a conservative base that has hungered for an inspiring standard-bearer. Ryan is articulating clear convictions about fiscal austerity and offering an intellectual vision. And he’s fleshing out Romney’s biography, vouching for his character and values and trumpeting his accomplishments, such as turning around the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
“Remember the chaos? Remember the waste and the bloated spending and the corruption that was plaguing the Olympics at that time?” Ryan asked sweaty throngs of supporters packed into a steamy furniture factory in High Point, N.C., on Sunday. “Who did they turn to? Who did they ask to drop everything in his life and save the Olympics? That was this man right here.”
Romney, standing to Ryan’s side, smiled and nodded.
Onstage, the relaxed Ryan exudes the kind of vigor and easy confidence that the more stiff and seemingly scripted Romney long has struggled to project. “This is awesome,” the 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin exhorted as he looked out at another roaring crowd. When Romney pledged to get rid of “Obamacare,” Ryan threw his arms in the air in approval, as if his beloved Green Bay Packers had just scored a touchdown.
“I am so happy,” Romney told an overflow crowd in North Carolina. “I am so happy to have my teammate now — the two of us.”
On Sunday night, the two flew here to Waukesha for a huge “homecoming” rally honoring Ryan, a fifth-generation Wisconsinite. He didn’t hide his emotions, wiping tears from his eyes. His voice choking up, Ryan looked out at the crowd of about 10,000 and said, “Hi, Mom!”
“My veins run with cheese, bratwurst and a little Spotted Cow, Leinenkugels and some Miller” beer, Ryan said. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here. I like to fish here. I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting.”
Romney later said that returning home with Ryan brought tears to his eyes, too. But an hour after the rally, the two parted ways and are not expected to appear together again for 21 / 2 weeks, when they will reunite at the Republican National Convention, in Tampa.
So with the couple’s short honeymoon over, will Romney go back to being the candidate he was, or will he carry this newfound momentum through the rest of his bus trip and the fall campaign? And as Ryan begins his solo campaign swing, will his star power among conservative activists outshine Romney’s, drawing parallels to Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008?
Although Ryan’s validation of Romney has gone over well, it’s a tall order to seed a new narrative to prop up the candidate, whose likability ratings fell this summer under the onslaught of the Obama campaign’s attacks on his personal finances and business ethics. And for all the attention Ryan has received since Romney tapped him as his No. 2 on Saturday, it’s Romney who will be debating President Obama and whose name will appear at the top of ballots in November.
“Americans recognize that running mates are very important, but it’s the top of the ticket obviously that makes what the voters decide on as they enter the ballot booth,” Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Despite Ryan and Romney’s easy rapport, there are emerging flash points, such as Ryan’s politically controversial budget proposal to slash federal spending and overhaul Medicare.
On the stump, both candidates conspicuously have avoided talking about the specifics in Ryan’s budget, instead alluding to his bold ideas and casting the House Budget Committee chairman as a consensus-builder with solutions to the nation’s fiscal crisis.
“Instead of throwing brickbats and attacking and demonizing other people, he recognized that honest people can have honest differences,” Romney said Sunday at a rally in Mooresville, N.C.
Democrats are seizing on the Medicare proposal in particular to paint the Romney-Ryan ticket as dangerous. “Congressman Ryan is a right-wing ideologue, and that is reflected in the positions that he’s taken,” David Axelrod, a senior strategist for the Obama campaign, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“He is quite extreme — good, good person, you know, genial person — but his views are quite harsh,” Axelrod added.
In their first joint interview, on “60 Minutes,” Romney said he does not think Ryan’s Medicare plan would hurt the ticket’s chances. “What Paul Ryan and I have talked about is saving Medicare, is providing people greater choice in Medicare, making sure it’s there for current seniors,” Romney said on CBS News.
Romney has been defending his running mate from the moment he announced the ticket beside the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk on Saturday. Although Ryan has spent the vast majority of his adult life in Washington, first as a congressional aide and later as a congressman, Romney is trying to convince voters that Ryan’s dreams were elsewhere.
“His career ambition was not to go to Washington,” Romney said Sunday in North Carolina. “That is not what he wanted to do. But he became concerned about what was happening in the country and wanted to get America back on track, and so he put aside the plans he had for his career and said, ‘I’m going to go and serve.’ ”
This fits the image the Romney team is trying to project of Ryan: a committed family man and a humble public servant, a rigorous thinker and a principled leader. At each campaign stop, Romney makes a point of telling voters that Ryan formed his character in high school when his father died.
On Monday, as Romney will stage two rallies and a business roundtable in Florida, Ryan will head to the Iowa State Fair.
“Iowa, in particular, that is a state where I think [Ryan’s] life story is important,” campaign adviser Kevin Madden said. “It’s something that I think helps him connect with a lot of those voters there.”
Romney’s campaign strategists think Ryan could help the ticket across the Midwest, particularly with blue-collar voters in the Great Lakes region and other industrial areas, although they said they plan to have him campaign in all the battleground states.
“I don’t know any place you wouldn’t take him,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “You could take him to the suburbs of Philly. You could take him to small-town Iowa. You could take him to Florida.”
The next few weeks will test whether Stevens is right. But Romney may not want to see his partner leave his side. While the pair addressed one crowd in North Carolina, Romney heaped praise on Ryan when supporters interrupted with chants of “Paul! Paul!”
“Yeah!” Romney cried out in response. “Paul! Paul! Paul! Paul! Paul! Paul! Let’s cheer for Paul!”