NORFOLK, Va. — Mitt Romney chose US Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate on Saturday, a potentially race-defining move that rockets one of the Republican Party’s young leaders to national prominence and sharpens the distinction between the visions Romney and President Obama offer the country.
The choice of Ryan — a boyish-faced Wisconsin Republican who is considered one of the intellectual leaders of his party — illustrated Romney’s desire to shake up the race and to project his campaign as a crusade for substantive, long-term solutions to enduring national problems.
The choice of Ryan was immediately and widely described by commentators as bold but also as something of a gamble. Ryan’s ideas about overhauling the tax code, cutting the deficit, and dramatically confronting third-rail issues in politics — programs such as Medicare — seem certain to energize the party’s conservative base just 16 days before the Republican National Convention. What will only become evident in the weeks of campaigning ahead is whether Ryan’s presence on the ticket, and the contentious ideas he brings with him, will draw in or repel independent voters in swing states — the critical constituency that will likely decide the election’s outcome.
What is clear is that with the choice of Ryan, Romney is trying to recast the election as something more than just a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy.
Emerging Saturday from a hulking World War II era battleship — the USS Wisconsin — Romney lavished praise on the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“He doesn’t demonize his opponents. He understands honorable people can have honest differences,” Romney said. “He’s never been content to simply curse the darkness. He’d rather light candles.”
Ryan followed with an energetic speech that mixed personal details about himself, a man most of the country knows little about, with a skewering of Obama’s policies.
“No one disputes President Obama inherited a difficult situation — and, in his first two years, with his party in complete control of Washington, he passed nearly every item on his agenda,” Ryan said. “But that didn’t make things better. In fact, we find ourselves in a nation facing debt, doubt, and despair.”
Both campaigns now plan an uptick in activity. Romney is on a bus tour through four states. On Monday, Obama and Ryan will both be in Iowa, on separate visits that promise to showcase their opposing philosophies.
After Vice President Joe Biden called Ryan to wish him well, just as Ryan and Romney were taking the stage, Obama’s campaign offered its first comment on the new ticket.
“Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.
Romney and Ryan later traveled to a packed gymnasium in Ashland, Va., and met with crowds who had stood for hours in the sun in Manassas.
Mary Kelly, a teacher from Manassas, said she wasn’t sure she would vote before Romney chose Ryan as running mate.
“I thought Romney was just another Republican,” she said. “As far as I was concerned, he didn’t have the conviction that Paul Ryan does. I didn’t trust him — especially after the Etch a Sketch comment.”
“Now,” she added, “I’m energized.”
The pick, however, could complicate Romney’s standing in key states such as Florida and Nevada, which have large populations of senior citizens who reliably vote. Ryan’s plans to recast Medicare, as a program relying on limited cash vouchers, has made many seniors groups apprehensive.
Daniel C. Adcock, director of government relations at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said Ryan’s choice is all the more significant because Romney has been relatively silent on the issue.
“This decision to pick Congressman Ryan changes the entire dynamic,” he said. “Governor Romney has not really made substantive statements on Medicare in the last few months.”
“In the battleground states and in congressional districts and Senate races across the country,” he added, “it will make Medicare and social issues top-tier in this campaign.”
James Roosevelt Jr., former associate commissioner of the Social Security Administration and now chief executive of the Tufts Health Plan, concurred.
“Governor Romney has made a pick who more than any other member of Congress has expressed a detailed agenda to achieve a set of conservative goals,” Roosevelt said. “That particularly applies to Medicare and Social Security.”
“This brings a debate on some real specifics,” added Roosevelt, who is also a member of the Democratic National Committee. “These were not just policy papers Ryan has put forward. They were voted on by the Republican House. I think this is going to be a very interesting debate – on, of all things, issues.”
The Democrats may already have a model for using Medicare to undercut the GOP. Last year, Democrat Kathy Hochul of New York won a special election in a mostly conservative, rural congressional district between Buffalo and Rochester by hammering against the so-called Ryan budget, persuading many senior citizens that her opponent was going to radically change Medicare.
Romney’s choice is also bold because while Ryan is well-known in Washington, he does not have the name recognition of others Romney was considering, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Yet even Democrats who have worked with Ryan had praise for him.
“I disagree with most of what he says but I admire his conviction,’’ said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who served with Ryan on the Budget Committee and has sparred with him on the House floor. “Paul Ryan has figured out what he believes, and he has fought very passionately for it. He really is a man of integrity.”
McGovern also said Ryan will prove to be a formidable campaigner.
“He is a good debater,” he said. “He is not a pushover. He is not Sarah Palin. . . . I have always been amazed at his ability to make people who would be harmed by his policies feel [those policies] aren’t so bad. He could talk a cat off a fish truck.”
Republicans were effusive in their praise of the choice.
“Governor Romney and Representative Ryan are the strongest team to return America to prosperity and to defend our interests abroad,’’ said Arizona Senator John McCain. “Paul Ryan has proven that he is fully prepared to address our nation’s economic challenges.’’
The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, agreed. “Paul Ryan is an excellent choice, and a confirmation that Governor Romney is serious about strengthening America’s economic future, tackling the deficits and debt that have skyrocketed under President Obama.’’
Romney and Ryan have developed a kinship over the course of the campaign. Earlier this year, they campaigned together in Wisconsin. Ryan also had a role in playing an April Fools joke on Romney — in which Romney showed up to an empty ballroom thinking there was a full crowd.
Ryan endorsed Romney before Wisconsin’s primary in March. He comes from a state that leans Democrat but could come into play in November, with its 10 electoral votes.
Ryan was once considered a long shot for the vice presidential nomination, largely because of his youth and his potentially controversial policies.
McGovern warned Democrats not to take him lightly.
“Of all the guys Governor Romney could have picked,” McGovern said, “this guy could probably be the most advantageous to him. There is a monumental choice before the American people, and I am going fight hard to make sure he doesn’t become vice president.”
The news capped an intense search process. Romney advisers said he made the decision to select Ryan on Aug. 1, after Romney returned from a trip overseas that did not garner the positive headlines they sought.
Romney met with Beth Myers, a longtime aide who led the vice presidential search process, and they called Ryan to set up a meeting, which took place at Romney’s home in New Hampshire on Aug 5. But the decision was kept under wraps and only began to leak early Saturday morning.
The Romney campaign sent out its first formal announcement on Saturday through a smartphone app, alerting supporters simply: “Mitt’s Choice for VP is Paul Ryan.”
But the day was not without a glaring hiccup when Romney introduced Ryan as “the next president of the United States.” Romney briefly left the stage as Ryan began his remarks, but then reemerged.
“Every now and then I’m known to make a mistake,” Romney said. “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.”