Paul Ryan: Which campaign gets the bigger boost?

Both Democrats and conservative Republicans are seeing Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as a potential game-changer for their team. But only one can win.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin reacts to audience applause during a campaign event at the Waukesha county expo center, Sunday, Aug. 12, in Waukesha, Wis.

On one point, partisans on both sides agree: Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has the potential to be a game-changer.

For Mr. Romney, Congressman Ryan of Wisconsin has given his presidential campaign energy and focus. The “Ryan plan,” the House Budget chairman’s proposed tax cuts, spending cuts, and dramatic rethink of entitlements, is now at the center of debate.

The immediate reaction of conservatives, who were skeptical of the former governor of Massachusetts, was excitement, and a feeling they could begin to trust Romney.

Democrats are equally thrilled about the choice of Ryan, in part for the same reason. His detailed plan, they say, gives them a club with which to beat the Romney-Ryan ticket about the head, and scare voters – especially seniors in key swing states like Florida and Ohio.

Never mind that Ryan’s proposals for Medicare and Social Security would not affect those at or near retirement. As Romney arrived in Florida Monday morning to campaign, the Obama campaign released a web video featuring older Floridians expressing alarm over cuts to Medicare under the “Romney-Ryan plan.”  

Both sides could be right: Ryan could be a game-changer in a race that, pre-Ryan, showed President Obama with a slight edge in polls. The question is, for which side? Does it turn the tide toward Romney, or shift it more fully toward Mr. Obama?

The outcome, analysts say, could depend on which side is able to define Ryan and his plan – neither the man nor the proposal is well-known by most Americans – in the next few weeks.

The selection of Ryan is “both an opportunity and a danger for the Romney campaign, and an opportunity for the Obama campaign,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The president starts out ahead, he says, and therefore “the danger for him is certainly there, but less immediate and overt.”

If the 2012 race turns into a “base election” – that is, with an electorate that consists mostly of loyal and “leaning” Democrats and Republicans, but not a lot of people who are newly inspired to vote, as in 2008 – then the addition of Ryan has the potential to tip the balance for Romney.

“A base strategy might work this year because a motivated GOP base, despite its weaknesses with minority voters, might be able to outnumber the Democratic base in this election, much like it did in 2004,” when President George W. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry, write Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It does not appear that Romney has his base fully behind him.”

That, at least, was true before the Ryan selection. And it’s still too soon to gauge Ryan’s impact on the race. But already, Romney is engaging in some fine-tuning of his approach to his running mate that could risk alienating some conservatives and reignite charges of flip-flopping.

On Saturday, the day of Ryan’s rollout, Romney campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei told Politico that the candidate “applauds” Ryan’s ideas but that Romney would issue his own budget blueprint. In their joint campaign appearances on Sunday, Romney referred only to “my plan,” and did not explicitly embrace the Ryan plan.

In their joint interview Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” when asked if Ryan could teach him some things about the budget, Romney made clear that, if elected, they would work together. But as if to reinforce that he is the alpha dog, Romney added: “Obviously, I have to make the final call in important decisions.”

At the Romney-Ryan campaign event on Saturday in Manassas, Va. – one of the most important tossup states – the crowd was eager to see Romney’s young new running mate in action. Some interviewed knew who he was, and others didn’t, reflecting the fact that Ryan's national image was still very much a work in progress.

By Monday, a new poll from ABC News showed Ryan’s image improving. In weekend interviews, 38 percent of Americans responded favorably to Ryan’s selection for the ticket, up from 23 percent in pre-selection interviews, ABC reported. Thirty-three percent, disproportionately Democrats, see him unfavorably, and 30 percent are undecided.

At the Manassas event, some voters seemed prepared to fall in love with Ryan, even if he wasn’t their first choice for the ticket.

“If it can’t be Allen West, then Paul Ryan is the second best,” says Carole Sarkuti, a local tea party activist. Congressman West, a freshman from Florida, is one of only two African American Republicans in Congress, former military, and an outspoken tea partyer.

Another attendee raised the name of another Floridian, this one frequently mentioned as a top possibility for the GOP ticket before Ryan’s selection.

“I think Marco Rubio would have brought Romney more votes,” says Tom Sprain, a retired federal government employee from Manassas, referring to the junior senator from Florida. “He would have helped with Hispanic voters and in Florida and Arizona.”

But, Mr. Sprain adds, “Ryan is a wonderful guy.”

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