Mitt Romney is now the official 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
But the new face of the party? Delegates say that’s Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan.
Ryan’s full-throttle brand of social and fiscal conservatism combined with his bold blueprint for federal spending has emerged as the new party standard heading into the November elections — and beyond.
Romney admittedly remains a somewhat awkward candidate to embrace for some Republicans in the Kansas and Missouri delegations. But Ryan, the 42-year-old congressman from southeast Wisconsin who’s scheduled to give his first prime-time speech tonight, gets political pulses racing.
“The most exciting time for me in this campaign will be the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan (vice-presidential) debate,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who calls himself a friend of Ryan’s. “I think Ryan will eat his lunch with facts and figures.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, also a Republican, said Ryan’s pick “is the strongest signal that Governor Romney could send that we want to be the party of big ideas, that we want to solve these problems.”
Hailed as the numbers whiz who stood up to President Barack Obama in a now-famous 2011 Republican caucus meeting, Ryan has excited the GOP base precisely because his “Ryan plan” is so bold. It calls for sharp federal spending cuts, tax cuts even for the wealthy, and a dramatic restructuring of Medicare and Medicaid, two long-standing entitlement programs.
Ryan is seen by Republicans, at least, as the first leader with the guts to propose the types of sweeping reductions needed to finally bring federal spending under some semblance of control after years of talk in Washington, but little action.
“The reason he’s so popular is that he’s saying what we’ve been failing to communicate so often on the debt, health care and government in general,” said Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.
Former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, a Republican, said the party is seeking a focus on the economy and budget.
“Paul Ryan’s choice enables us to do that because he’s been such a proponent, not just of getting the government’s fiscal house in order, but understanding the connection between that and economic growth,” Talent said.
For Gen X politicians of Ryan’s age, the vice presidential nominee represents their first shot at straightening out a budget mess that’s led to a nearly $16 trillion national debt. Ryan embodies that new willingness to push ahead and actually do something about the fiscal problem that’s been hanging over the country for so long.
“Enough’s enough,” Schwab said. “Maybe we’re the ones who can stop this (deficit spending).”
Ryan won widespread praise within the House GOP caucus last year following his pointed exchange with Obama on Medicare funding. At one point, Ryan suggested that the president had engaged in “demagoguery” by painting Ryan’s Medicare proposal as a “voucher” program that would hurt seniors.
“Hey, I’m that Ryan guy,” Ryan said at the start of his remarks to his House colleagues, a Republican aide told the Los Angeles Times.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, was said to have received a standing ovation from Republicans during the meeting.
In March, the GOP-led House passed Ryan’s budget plan 228-191, with all but 10 Republicans voting for the measure and all House Democrats opposing it.
When Romney picked Ryan as his running mate this month, Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City said they were thrilled because Ryan’s controversial budget ideas gave Democrats so much to shoot at.
But more than two weeks into his vice-presidential campaign, Ryan remains popular with convention delegates and with voters, according to national polls.
In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 51 percent of Americans said they approved of Romney’s choice of Ryan, while 30 percent disapproved. That compares to the 60 percent who approved of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin at about the same time four years ago, to 34 percent who disapproved.
Some 14 percent said Ryan’s selection will make them more likely to vote for the Romney ticket, while an identical 14 percent said it would make them less likely. Seventy percent said it would make no difference.
In 2008, when Obama chose Sen. Joe Biden, 22 percent said they were more likely to vote for the Democratic ticket and 11 percent said they were less likely. Two-thirds of voters said it made no difference.
Ryan’s budget plan, however, might be undermining his numbers. The poll found 47 percent supported his proposal, but 44 percent opposed it.
Ryan backers said they understood that the boldness of Ryan’s ideas will come with a political price.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Kris Van Meteren, a Kansas delegate from Ozawkie. “He is the new face of the Republican Party. If he’s who we get coming up in the ranks, it’s very encouraging to see we’re moving in the right direction.”
Just a decade ago, the Kansas GOP was split between social and fiscal conservatives. But Ryan embodies both branches of the party, said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.
“What’s happened nationally and to an extent in Kansas is that these two strains have overlapped,” Loomis said. “The problem is that in doing so, it really opens the door to the question: Can you build a majority when you’re so far to the right on fiscal issues and social issues? That’s the question.”
Any tension over what should be a higher priority — spending or social issues, such as abortion — has largely dissipated, Loomis noted.
“The one thing that cements them together in the short term is this just intense dislike of Obama,” he said. Republicans “desperately want to win. But in this instance, the opposition to Obama truly binds them together.”