The congressman from Wisconsin, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, is relatively popular – and very popular among Republicans. But his ideas, particularly his vision for Medicare, are strongly opposed by a majority of Americans.
So when Representative Ryan takes the stage Wednesday for what is essentially his prime time public unveiling, the disentangling of Paul Ryan, Medicare attacker, and Paul Ryan, fresh-faced conservative leader, will begin.
Ryan will aim to come off as the "likable" man "plenty competent to take the top job” in an emergency, as seen by Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi. But in the coming weeks, Democrats will attempt to paint him as a hard-right Republican producing "hard-edged, uncompromising" legislation, as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland put it.
Ryan is seen in a favorable light by a plurality of Americans, according to a national survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post. When asked to describe Ryan, the top responses trended positive, with "good" and "intelligent" among the top three answers. The other answers in the top five – "conservative," "young," and "unknown" – were seen as neutral.
Overall, the picture is more mixed, with 37 percent of respondents using clearly positive terms, 35 percent using clearly negative terms, and 28 percent using neutral terms. That puts the Pew survey in line with recent polling by conservative group Resurgent Republic, which found 39 percent of the public view Ryan favorably versus 35 percent unfavorably.
Wednesday is Ryan's opportunity to begin moving that needle in a positive direction. Senator Wicker says Ryan will show America that “he’s got a spine.”
But Democrats see Ryan's advocacy for changes to entitlement programs as his undoing.
As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan wrote budgets that would end the current Medicare program for those under the age of 55 and replace it with a premium-support system that would give seniors money each month to pay their medical expenses. Democrats call this a voucher system, and blocked it in the Senate.
What do voters think about the plan? The best case polling scenario is a dead tie, according to GOP pollsters Resurgent Republic.
The worst? Well, a lot worse.
A Washington Post poll released Monday shows just under two-thirds of registered voters opposed the Ryan plan, with 40 percent strongly opposed. A Pew Research survey from last week shows that among those who have heard “a lot” or “a little” about Ryan’s proposal, 49 percent oppose it versus 35 percent who support it.
Republicans say they want to fight this fight in Election 2012. “I would rather have a face-to-face, head-to-head debate about the fact that a very popular program is going bankrupt,” says Wicker. “We’re going to present [America] with grown-up choices.”
Democrats scoff at the idea that Republicans are offering anything like “grown-up choices.” They say Republicans are trying to distract voters from Ryan's Medicare plan by suggesting that President Obama “raided” Medicare to pay for his health-care reform law – a claim rated “half true” by Politifact.
“It is a calculated, cynical effort to confuse seniors and throw up so much dust that people won’t be able to see what the Republican plan does and how it hurts seniors,” says Congressman Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and the stand-in for Ryan in Vice President Joe Biden's debate preparations.
Van Hollen argues that when more Americans get familiar with Ryan’s proposals, they’ll “understand there is a difference between congeniality and a willingness to compromise, and if you look at the Romney-Ryan plan, it’s a hard-edged, uncompromising document.”
In that way, Ryan’s challenge Wednesday night might be best encapsulated in the words of Tuesday's prime-time speaker at the Republican convention, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“Real leaders don't follow polls. Real leaders change polls,” Governor Christie said. “That's what we need to do now.”