In pushing aside caution and tapping U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Mitt Romney on Saturday ensured the next 86 days will give voters a clear choice between two starkly different visions for how to get America back on track.
The decision excited conservatives, who had been rooting for the normally risk-averse Romney to go bold, as well as Democrats, who believe Ryan's controversial budget plan can now be more directly tied to Romney.
"President Obama, and too many like him in Washington, have refused to make difficult decisions because they are more worried about their next election than they are about the next generation," the Wisconsin congressman said in Norfolk, Va., after bounding down the stairs of a retired battleship — the USS Wisconsin — to roaring cheers.
"We might have been able to get away with that before, but not now. We're in a different, and dangerous, moment. We're running out of time — and we can't afford four more years of this."
Romney hailed Ryan as "an intellectual leader of the Republican Party. He understands the fiscal challenges facing America: our exploding deficits and crushing debt — and the fiscal catastrophe that awaits us if we don't change course."
The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan is universally respected as a substantive and sincere policy wonk, and is the primary architect of the House proposal that would radically overhaul and shrink entitlement programs and government spending. A personable, 42-year-old father of three and fan of intense P90X workouts, Ryan adds vigor and specifics to the sometimes listless Romney campaign. In contrast to Romney, Ryan has middle-class roots, and the conservative base loves him, with editors at the Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard urging Romney, 65, to pick Ryan in recent days.
But Ryan has little national profile, and it's unclear how voters will view the readiness of a lifelong politician without foreign policy or national security experience. Nor is it clear that Ryan can appeal to voters beyond the conservative base, particularly Hispanic and female voters.
Especially in must-win Florida, Ryan's plan to drastically change Social Security and Medicare for future recipients while cutting taxes on wealthy Americans makes him a risky choice. Romney plans a bus tour through Florida on Monday, but the campaign on Saturday said Ryan's participation was unconfirmed.
"I don't think we've ever seen a pick that was done to give a campaign a message," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. "It is a very, very high risk, very low, low reward. Is this going to be Sarah Palin in a necktie with a secret plan to destroy Medicare? How do you win the presidency without Florida? It would be like bringing a running mate to Iowa who doesn't believe there should be corn."
It's not so clear, however, that calls for revamping entitlement programs are as radioactive as they once were. Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, another on Romney's short list of potential running mates, won his Senate race in 2010 while openly calling for entitlement cuts for future beneficiaries. "It's not as toxic as it used to be, but it still smells bad,'' said former state Republican chairman Tom Slade, noting that far more voters today than a decade ago see Medicare and Social Security as unsustainable.
Democrats had already intended to wrap the Ryan budget and future cuts to entitlements around Romney, and the vice presidential pick only makes that easier.
"They've been doing that since Claude Pepper, and I'm sure Debbie Wasserman Schultz is going to talk about how every old person needs to hide under the mattress and fear a Republican takeover," said Brian Ballard, a top Romney fundraiser in Tallahassee, referring to the Florida congresswoman and head of the Democratic National Committee. "But at least Democrats are going finally to have an honest debate, instead of picking garbage about Bain Capital and all the rest."
The Ryan budget — formally named "A Roadmap for America's Future" — calls for $5.3 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, touching most aspects of government, from highways to college aid, and eliminates the federal health care law. It cuts taxes by $2 trillion more than President Barack Obama and slashes a host of entitlements. It would convert Medicare into a subsidy program in which recipients can purchase private coverage. Current retirees and people near retirement would not be affected, which leads skeptics to argue the plan would only add to the deficit with its big tax cuts.
"In naming congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, competing aggressively for Florida's 29 electoral votes.
The campaign will be a fierce battle on how to frame the Ryan budget and the best approach to tax and spending priorities.
"It's a bold choice, but there is some risk involved," said Republican strategist John Feehery. "It shows this is not just going to be a referendum on Obama; it's also going to be a battle of ideas and also generations. But they have to make sure it's not a referendum on Medicare. Republicans have to be ready with talk how they are going to preserve Medicare for people over 60."
By picking Ryan, Romney appeared to acknowledge that he needed to reset his campaign after a rocky summer where Democratic attacks on his record as a venture capitalist had taken a toll.
For months, the former Massachusetts governor has said his top criteria would be someone ready to be commander in chief from day one, and most pundits expected a "safe" choice such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
The selection just over two weeks before the Republican National Convention in Tampa also signals a potentially significant shift in the campaign rhetoric, opening the door for a serious and substantive debate about the role and scope of government. If that happens, the election could give the winning party a mandate for how to handle the looming budget crisis after November.
"At a time when the president's campaign is taking American politics to new lows, we are going to do things differently. We are going to talk about aspirations and American ideals; about bringing people together to solve the urgent problems facing our nation," Romney said.
But for his first campaign for Congress in a competitive district, the still largely unknown Ryan has never faced a tough political campaign, and he is untested as a national candidate. While he could help Romney in Wisconsin, where Obama currently leads, overall he looks more like a candidate to energize the base than appeal to swing voters. Because Paul is a hard-liner on immigration and a consistent supporter of restricting abortion and stem cell research, his ability to draw more Hispanic and women voters to Romney is uncertain at best.
"Both Romney and Ryan share a vision for America where the wealthiest few are prioritized over the middle class, students and seniors — that's not a vision which will move our state or country forward, and it is a vision which Floridians will wholeheartedly reject," said Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith.
At the same time, Ryan is a Catholic with humble roots, an amiable persona and the potential to win over blue-collar voters.
"In Florida, I believe the Ryan choice will play very well because like Marco (Rubio), he is an articulate blue-collar messenger who balances solid tea party street cred with a reputation for a well-reasoned, pragmatic approach," said GOP fundraiser Slater Bayliss. "I believe this balance will play well with Florida's swing voter."
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