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Romney's choice of Ryan as running mate gives race a new focus

Republicans and pundits spent Saturday calling Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate “bold” and “daring.”

It might be something else, too, they said — good for the country.

In choosing Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman and the architect of the House Republicans’ much-discussed budget blueprint, Romney virtually guaranteed a long-delayed nationwide discussion of what needs to be done to deal with America’s soaring budget deficit.

On that point, Republicans and Democrats were, for once, in lockstep agreement.

 “Hopefully, this will get us talking,” said Stephene Moore, the 2010 Democratic nominee in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District. “We need a healthy debate about how to fix what’s going on around here.”

Republican state Sen. Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit agreed that “it’s a conversation that everybody wants. I’m tired of all the personal attacks.”

Ryan, whose selection comes just two weeks before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, introduced a budget plan last year that critics contend includes some of the most polarizing policy ideas in the Republican Party. It would lower tax rates, cut spending and seek to downsize Medicare and Medicaid, the government-run health-care programs, aiming for a balanced budget by 2040.

So instead of a fall election devoted to what Romney did — or did not do — while overseeing Bain Capital, or an enduring debate over whether Romney should — or should not — release his tax returns for the last decade, the nation faces a dialogue over the future of Medicare and Social Security, health care and how the nation can reduce its nearly $16 trillion national debt.

Romney acknowledged this Saturday in Norfolk, Va., as he introduced Ryan, a 42-year-old, seven-term congressman who once worked for Kansan Sam Brownback in the Senate. The backdrop: the docked, steel-gray USS Wisconsin.

“With energy and vision, Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” Romney said. “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.

“He combines a profound sense of responsibility for what we owe the next generation with an unbounded optimism in America’s future and (an) understanding of all the wonderful things the American people can do.”

In his remarks, Ryan — the first Gen Xer on a national ticket and the first House member to become a major-party running mate since Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 — took aim at President Barack Obama “and too many like him in Washington” who “have refused to make difficult decisions because they are more worried about their next election than they are about the next generation.

“We might have been able to get away with that before, but not now,” Ryan said. “We’re in a different and dangerous moment. We’re running out of time. And we can’t afford four more years of this.

“Politicians from both parties have made empty promises, which will soon become broken promises with painful consequences if we fail to act now.”

Republicans and Democrats agreed on something else Saturday: Members of both parties said they were thrilled with the choice, though for vastly different reasons. Republicans insisted that Ryan will excite conservatives, some of whom had been slow to warm to Romney, and bolster the policy platform that the former Massachusetts governor is offering.

“A lot of Republicans have been wanting some assurances that our presidential team is serious about cutting spending,” said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican. “Nobody says that better than Paul Ryan. Of all 535 members of Congress, Ryan is the single most credible individual on budget cutting.”

Conservative state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said he was “very, very, very pleased. I don’t see anybody coming out and saying this is a bad pick.”

And Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup said the addition of Ryan to the GOP ticket adds substance to Romney’s bid.

“What Paul Ryan gives Mitt Romney is a policy backbone, which is something he didn’t have before,” Aistrup said.

But Democrats said they were almost giddy with the choice because Ryan’s proposals raise so many questions.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, said Ryan’s place on the ticket gives Obama a huge boost. “I think this baby is on the way toward being a decisive win and a second term,” he said of the upcoming election.

“Many Democrats are celebrating, if not salivating, over this selection because of what brought (Ryan) into national prominence, which was his suggestions that we privatize or essentially ‘voucherize’ Medicare and dramatically reduce Social Security,” Cleaver added.

Steve Bough, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party, called the pick “awesome If that’s what they want to have the discussion about — getting rid of Medicare — that’s great,” Bough said.

For his part, Romney has backed the Ryan budget plan, but has not spoken about it often. Romney has called it “bold and exciting” and an “excellent piece of work,” similar to his own platform.

“I think it’d be marvelous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget and to adopt it and pass it along to the president,” Romney said in a tele-town hall with Wisconsin voters in March.

‘Great news for America’

Ryan, a father of three, had plans to attend the University of Chicago to become an economist, but put those off after he kept getting what he called “really interesting jobs” in politics. He’s worked for a string of well-known Republicans: as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp and then for Kemp and Bill Bennett at the Empower America think tank.

From 1995 to 1997, he worked for Brownback as legislative director when Brownback was in the House and later in the Senate. On Saturday, Brownback was effusive in his praise of his former staffer, proclaiming that Kansas as well as Wisconsin has benefited from Ryan’s talents.

“Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate is great news for America and great news for Kansas,” Brownback said. “I couldn’t be happier or more excited for Paul, Janna and their family. Paul has the vision, experience and character to help bring America back.”

Ryan has repeatedly won re-election in a southeast Wisconsin district that’s been hard-hit by auto plant closings in recent years. His winning percentages typically have been in the high 50s to high 60s, even though Democratic presidential candidates have carried the district four of the last five elections.

He is known as something of a fitness freak after both his father and grandfather died from heart attacks in their 50s. A survey of congressional staffers in 2010 named him the House’s biggest “gym rat.”

Ryan also is known for occasionally bucking his party. He backed the bank and auto bailouts, for instance, and in 2007 supported a measure to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Of that vote, he said he had gay friends “who didn’t choose to be gay they were just created that way.”

But he’s regarded as a loyal conservative. He opposed the federal health-care law, the stimulus package and cap-and-trade. He supported allowing guns in national parks and barring federal funds for abortions.

And he’s viewed as a good guy. Cleaver said that while he dislikes Ryan’s positions, “I do like his disposition. He’s been able to rise to a spot of leadership because he doesn’t present things nastily. He’s a very civil person. He will not call names or attack people.”

Controversial budget choices

In announcing his running mate, Romney flubbed the introduction, calling Ryan the next president of the United States.

As Ryan stood before the microphones, Romney ran back to his side admitting, “Every now and then I’m known to make a mistake.”

As laughter erupted, Romney added, “But I did not make a mistake with this guy. But I can tell you this: He’s going to be the next vice president of the United States.”

How the choice will play politically remained a little murky Saturday. Obama has picked up a few points in recent national surveys and leads Romney by about 5 points, according to an average of polls compiled by Realclearpolitics.com.

The first polls gauging the popularity of the Ryan pick with the public were not expected to be completed for another day or two.

One measure of the selection, however, will be whether Romney can carry Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, which now tilts toward Obama by as many as 4 or 5 points.

Whether Ryan will boost Romney by that much might be a stretch, said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. He said analysis of the impact vice presidential picks on their home states suggests a typical bounce of only 1 to 2 points.

“I’m not sure that this (pick) is something that puts Wisconsin in play,” Loomis said. “Maybe a little bit.”

Another concern for Republicans: Does Ryan place so much emphasis on controversial budget choices that it takes away from the GOP’s need to make the election a referendum on Obama?

“Historically when a president is under 50 percent in popularity and the economy is not doing well, everything suggests (the election) should be a referendum on presidential performance,” Loomis noted. “With Ryan on the ticket, you move the focus away from just a pure referendum on Obama.”

But there’s no question that voters will have a clear choice in November. Just as Missourians last week were presented with a Todd Akin-Claire McCaskill matchup in the U.S. Senate race — each offering two competing visions for the country’s future — so, too, does the national ticket now take on a similar dimension.

“The fact that Romney went to the right instead of the middle makes it so that you are for either a much more conservative presidency or you are for a middle-of-the-road presidency,” said Missouri state Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat.

Justus and others said that by picking Ryan, Romney may be attempting to frame the debate for the next 86 days on a series of substantive budget issues that both parties traditionally haven’t wanted to discuss.

In a sense, the selection suggests the evolution of a country slowly coming to grips with its own fiscal fate. For decades, just talking about Social Security reform was regarded as so risky that it was called “the third rail of American politics.” Touch it, and you die.

But on Saturday, a presidential nominee picked a running mate who not only is talking about reforming Social Security, but remaking Medicare and the tax code as well.

Analysts said the choice is a clear sign that the Romney campaign’s strategy to pound on Obama for a faulty presidency isn’t working. The GOP is seeking a new debate — one that will touch on programs that now benefit tens of millions of Americans.

Republicans will maintain that they still want to find a way to continue those programs for decades to come. Democrats will warn that the GOP is intent on destroying much of the social safety net.

Still, Republicans think Romney picked the right guy to start that conversation.

“Representative Ryan has shown a seriousness about solving our country’s big problems,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Overland Park. He said that Ryan “works to find positive solutions with members on both sides of the aisle, and will be a tremendous asset to the ticket as a solutions-focused leader.”

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