Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan home to a tearful welcome in Wisconsin on Sunday in a celebratory event that produced a flashof anger from Romney over what he considers dishonest campaigning by President Barack Obama.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman elevated to Romney's No. 2 on Saturday, wiped away tears and choked up as he and Romney made a dramatic entrance on stage in front of a crowd of around 8,000 to the theme song of the movie, "Air Force One." Clearly reveling in the moment as the native son come home, Ryan told them: "I'm a Wisconsinite through and through." "My veins run with cheese, bratwurst, a little Spotted Cow ... and some Millers," he said to laughter. "I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting."
The November 6 election is more than two months away, but Sunday's rally had the intensity of a typical late-October campaign event. It showed how Romney's selection of the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate has injected new energy into a campaign that had struggled to move beyond Democrats' efforts to cast Romney as a wealthy former private equity executive who cannot relate to middle-class Americans.
Romney hopes the enthusiasm produced by the No. 2 pick will generate a spark that will help him erase a lead Obama has produced in recent polls of voters. "What a homecoming for a terrific guy," Romney told the Waukesha crowd. "I guess you think I made the right decision, the right choice? I know I did."
When a heckler tried to disrupt the event, Romney unleashed frustrations at the Obama campaign over a television ad produced by a pro-Obama group that all but suggested Romney shared some of the blame for the death of the wife of a steelworker, who lost his job and health insurance when Romney's Bain Capital bought the company.
The ad has been roundly condemned by independent fact-checkers, but the Obama campaign has not called for the ad to be pulled. While the Romney campaign has engaged in negative tactics as well, his aides felt the ad crossed a line. "There's no question but if you follow the campaign of Barack Obama, he's going to do everything in his power to make this the lowest, meanest negative campaign in history. We're not going to let that happen. This is going to be a campaign about ideas about the future of America," Romney said angrily.
"Mr. President, take your campaign out of the gutter," he said. "Let's talk about the real issues that America faces." Romney, 65, seemed relieved to have a sidekick to end what he has called the "two against one" dynamic of the race, with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on one side and Romney on the other.
"It's a far more compelling dynamic than just being out there on my own," Romney told reporters late Saturday. But it also was evident that Romney's selection of Ryan, who is known for his sweeping budget plan to reduce government spending and debt by trimming taxes and revamping Medicare and other social programs, is going to raise a series of hurdles for his campaign as it sprints toward Election Day.
In choosing Ryan, Romney is all but attaching himself to Ryan's controversial budget plan, which has been blasted by Democrats who say it would dismantle popular social programs that help the elderly and the poor. Ryan's selection also suggested that Romney is tackling a prickly task during an intense, nasty and likely close race for the White House. He is asking Americans to consider tough questions about the future of Medicare, the government-backed health insurance program for the elderly, and a range of other government programs. During an interview that Romney and Ryan gave to CBS's Bob Schieffer on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Ryan responded to criticism of his Medicare plan by noting that it would apply only to those younger than 55.
"My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida," Ryan said. "Our point is, we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they've organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger. And we think these reforms are good reforms." Romney and Ryan will now head off in different directions, Romney to resume a bus tour in Florida and Ryan goes to Iowa on Monday.
SEEKING A NATIONAL DEBATE?
In previous elections, candidates who have started a not-so-popular conversation with American voters have run into problems. In 1984, for example, Democrat Walter Mondale emphasized the need for higher taxes and was swamped at the ballot box as voters re-elected Republican Ronald Reagan.
If Romney's campaign wants to foster a national debate over social programs and government entitlements, the big challenge will be doing so under the white-hot glow of the final weeks of a presidential campaign that so far has been defined by sound-bite messaging and out-of-context attacks by both sides. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cast Romney's campaign as the one being honest with Americans about the nation's fiscal future and said Obama's team is more interested in attacking Romney.
Selecting Ryan shows that Romney "has the leadership and courage to present to the American people a real contrast and a real debate that the American people deserve," Priebus said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Even so, Romney's campaign stressed that the presumptive Republican nominee would propose his own fiscal plan, suggesting it did not want the former Massachusetts governor to be tied to everything in Ryan's budget.
"The thing you have to remember about these campaigns is that Governor Romney is at the top of the ticket, and that Governor Romney's vision for the country is something that congressman Ryan supports," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.
DEMOCRATS TAKE AIM
Democrats' efforts to cast Ryan, and, by extension, Romney, as a threat to Medicare could be key in the election. Ryan's plan calls for an end to the guaranteed benefit in Medicare and replaces it with a system that would give vouchers to recipients to pay for health insurance.
The risk in such a plan is that if healthcare costs rise faster than the value of the vouchers, seniors would have to pay the difference. Obama's senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said on "Meet the Press" that the Medicare changes supported by Ryan would send the healthcare program, which polls indicate most Americans do not want changed, into a "death spiral." Independent groups that typically support Democrats have been more dramatic in their criticism.
Romney rejected the notion that Ryan's plan would kill Medicare. Ryan "has a plan ... to make sure we can save Medicare," Romney said. "And guess what, he's one of two sponsors - and guess what, the other is a leading Democrat," a reference to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
Wyden, however, disagreed with Romney's characterization of his work on the Medicare issue, saying that he has voted against Medicare changes proposed in Ryan's budget. Wyden told The Huffington Post that he merely had worked on a "policy paper" with Ryan that was designed to "start a conversation about how Democrats and Republicans might work together to uphold the Medicareguarantee."
(Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington)