Spotlight on Ryan to get brighter

2012-08-26T07:45:00Z 2012-08-28T19:33:01Z Spotlight on Ryan to get brighterMARY SPICUZZA | Wisconsin State Journal | mspicuzza@madison.com | 608-252-6122 madison.com

In the two weeks since U.S. Rep Paul Ryan jogged down the steps of the USS Wisconsin and into the national spotlight as Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's running mate, he's been praised by the GOP for uniting the base and injecting energy into the Romney campaign and the candidate himself.

His controversial "Path to Prosperity" budget plan has even taken center stage on the campaign trail.

But the Janesville Republican has also become a target for Democrats, who say he wants to end Medicare and replace it with a voucher program, and contend his budget would slash education funding for K-12 and university students to pay for tax cuts for the rich. And they equate his strong anti-abortion views to those of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate candidate who stirred nationwide outrage with his comments about rape.

Ryan also has faced scrutiny over everything from letters his office sent seeking stimulus money for Wisconsin companies to the fit of his suits and physique.

It's the kind of attention that signals a dramatic effect on the campaign — even if polls show the choice has resulted in little change in Romney's national poll numbers while providing modest bumps in a few key swing states, including Wisconsin.

But Ryan remains relatively unknown to most of the nation, including many voters in his own party, and he faces his biggest test so far when he accepts the GOP nomination for vice president at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Wednesday.

"Romney has already been helped by Ryan in terms of helping solidify the base. But most Republicans haven't seen him. Next week in Florida, that's when he's really going to introduce himself to most of America," said Merle Black, an Emory University politics professor. "He's going to have the biggest audience he's ever had in his life."

Ryan's rise

Ryan has developed a reputation as a key ideas man for the GOP during his 14 years as a member of the House of Representatives. His sweeping budget plan earned him widespread respect among conservatives. But it could cost Romney some votes.

Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and leading authority on the United States vice presidency, said he can't remember another vice president so closely tied with a plan like Ryan is to his budget proposal.

"The Ryan selection introduces some challenges or problems for Gov. Romney," Goldstein said. "It identifies him with a controversial plan."

Romney will have to embrace the Ryan budget or distance himself from it, he said.

Democrats say the competing tickets offer a clear choice.

"A guy like Ryan crystallizes what this election is all about," said state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.

Ryan may have already been nationally known among political observers and policy wonks, but he is facing a new level of scrutiny.

When reports surfaced about letters his office sent in 2009 seeking millions of dollars in economic stimulus money for two Wisconsin companies despite his opposition to the program, Ryan initially denied asking for the money. Then he denied it a second time. But later he reversed course and acknowledge the requests to federal agencies, saying he had forgotten his office sent them.

"I think he's surviving, but I think it's been a bit more stressful than he anticipated," said Peverill Squire, political science professor at the University of Missouri. "I think the scrutiny is more intense for vice presidential candidates than being a member of the House. You have so many more eyes looking at your record."

Ryan seems more comfortable talking about the budget and economy and would rather not be drawn into discussions about social issues, Squire said. So the questions about Ryan's anti-abortion beliefs in the wake of Akin's comments — that women's bodies can shut down and prevent pregnancies in cases of "legitimate rape" — are not something Ryan and other Republicans want to be a focus on the campaign trail.

"It certainly raises a host of issues that Republicans would rather not discuss," Squire said.

Greatest tests ahead

While Ryan may make it more difficult for Romney to reach out to some independent and moderate voters, Goldstein said, he has energized core Republicans who have been skeptical of Romney's conservative credentials.

Now two of Ryan's greatest tests as a vice presidential candidate lay ahead: his convention speech and the vice presidential debate, Goldstein said.

"In a way his convention speech is his best shot at trying to introduce him to the American people," he said.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, running mate for Sen. John McCain in 2008, fired up the GOP crowd and established herself as a national figure with her acceptance speech, he said. Ryan has tapped the same speech writer, Matthew Scully, to help with his Wednesday speech in Tampa.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Ryan's greatest challenge will be introducing himself beyond core GOP voters in the weeks after the convention.

"Next week he'll be talking to adoring fans," said Barca, who previously held Ryan's congressional seat. "But the real test will be in the following few weeks as his beliefs become known and as his budget gets exposed for its negative effects on the middle class."

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