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Romney makes a bold and risky move in choosing Paul Ryan for VP

Linda FeldmannThe Christian Science Monitor
Gage Skidmore photo

In choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has gone bold – and risky.

Congressman Ryan of Wisconsin is more than just the young, articulate chairman of the House Budget Committee. He is the author of a controversial budget proposal that would reduce taxes, cut government spending, and limit the growth of entitlements. Most controversially, he would turn Medicare, the government’s health-insurance program for seniors, into a voucher-like system, and Medicaid, health care for the poor, into block grants to the states.

Conservatives applaud the seven-term congressman as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party, a thinker with a vision for America’s unsustainable fiscal future. Liberals see Ryan as an ideologue who would destroy the nation’s social safety net, ready to throw Grandma off a cliff.

For Romney, the choice injects ideas and energy into a race that had so far – for both campaigns – been mostly about tearing down the other side.

Ryan’s selection also seems aimed at generating conservative enthusiasm for a presumptive nominee who has struggled to convince many in his party’s base that he is a true conservative.

Romney has also been slipping in recent polls against President Obama, perhaps shifting his calculation away from a safer choice – such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota – and toward someone with a sharper policy profile.

In introducing Ryan at a campaign event Saturday morning in Norfolk, Virginia – fittingly, in front of the battleship USS Wisconsin – Romney called Ryan a man of character and integrity, who has “internalized the virtues and hard-working ethic of the Midwest.”

“Paul Ryan works in Washington, but his beliefs remain firmly rooted in Janesville, Wisconsin,” his hometown, Romney said.

Romney injected a moment of levity into the proceedings when he accidentally introduced Ryan as “the next president of the United States." He returned to the stage moments later to reassure the assembled that Ryan would be the next “vice president.”

In his remarks, Ryan promised to help Romney “restore the dreams and greatness” of the country.

“Mitt Romney is a leader with the skills, the background and the character that our country needs at a crucial time in its history,” Ryan said. “Following four years of failed leadership, the hopes of our country, which have inspired the world, are growing dim; and they need someone to revive them. Governor Romney is the man for this moment.”

The Wisconsin congressman also highlighted his Washington-centered life in politics as adding to Romney’s background in business and the Olympics, and as a governor of Massachusetts.

“I believe my record of getting things done in Congress will be a very helpful complement to Governor Romney’s executive and private sector success outside Washington,” Ryan said. “I have worked closely with Republicans as well as Democrats to advance an agenda of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and job creation.”

Democrats see the selection of Ryan as a gift. He immediately shifts the focus of the campaign away from the No. 1 issue, the immediate need to boost employment and economic growth, and onto risky territory for Republicans: the future of the entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – that threaten eventually to bankrupt the country as the massive Baby Boom generation begins to retire.

The race is now on to define Ryan. Team Romney’s success in that challenge could go a long way toward determining the outcome in November.

Within moments of Ryan’s appearance on stage in Norfolk, the Obama campaign released a statement with its first cut on Ryan and defining his budget plan as “radical.”

“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 Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager.

“The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid,” he continued. “His plan also would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors.”

Messina also tied Ryan to the economic policies of former President George W. Bush and, by implication, the economic crisis that Obama inherited when he took office and which many voters still blame on Bush.

Ryan’s selection represents a victory for movement conservatives, who had raised the heat on Romney in the last week to go bold and select the Wisconsin Republican, who was first elected to Congress in 1998 while still in his 20s. Now in his early 40s, Ryan is still a young man, with a young family, but Republicans see his maturity and resume as overcoming age as a potential negative.

Before Ryan’s election to Congress, he worked for the late Jack Kemp, a towering conservative figure with bold ideas on inner-city outreach and onetime GOP vice presidential nominee, and William Bennett, former Education Security and another Republican thought leader.

“While Ryan may be young, he is experienced and as House Budget chair he has a fiscal focus for the future,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “His knowledge of complex economic matters and his ability to articulate them in a cogent way should help Romney make the case that the ticket is serious about getting America’s fiscal house in order and making America more competitive in the global economy.”

Mr. O’Connell adds that as independents learn more about Ryan, they will see his choice as a window into how Romney would analyze issues and tackle problems. But he acknowledges Romney’s risk, that Team Obama now has an opportunity to make the campaign a fight over entitlements.

Even among Republicans, there has been disagreement over the Ryan plan. In the GOP primaries, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – hardly a moderate – raised eyebrows when he called the Ryan budget “right-wing social engineering,” a comment for which he later apologized.

Still, no one doubts Ryan’s bona fides as a student of policy.

Indeed, Romney’s choice of running mate stands in stark contrast to 2008 GOP nominee John McCain’s selection of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Her charisma initially wowed the nation, but many voters quickly became concerned she was not ready for prime time in her shaky mastery of national and international policy. When Ryan takes the debate stage against Vice President Joe Biden, there’s no doubt he will be able to do more than hold his own.

Among tea party groups, long skeptical of Romney but essential to his victory, the early reaction to Ryan was positive. It also showed their need to be reassured that Romney would really promote conservative principles and not revert to his previous posture as a Massachusetts moderate if elected president.

Ryan’s choice “tells us that Mitt Romney intends to take our current and future financial challenges seriously,” said Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, in a statement.

Ryan’s presence on the ticket also raises the possibility that Romney could win Wisconsin, a Democratic-leaning state in the biggest electoral battleground region of the country, the upper Midwest. Ryan also brings to the table a story of family struggle – his father died when he was 16 – that Romney does not have.