In the end, Mitt Romney did what many experienced politicos believed he would not do.
He went bold.
In deciding to tap US Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be his vice presidential running mate, Romney eschewed the perception of a “safe” choice in the form of US Senator Rob Portman of Ohio—and tempted comparisons to the ill-fated 2008 selection of Sarah Palin by nominating a candidate largely untested on the national stage.
For perspective, the 42-year-old Ryan is just two months older than Mitt and Ann Romney’s eldest son, Tagg.
In announcing his choice today, Romney also dared overshadow the final day of competition in his beloved Olympics, as well as their multimillion-dollar closing ceremonies in London on Sunday, with saturation coverage of his own news.
He even dangled the timing and choice of nominee in the face of inquiring reporters, announcing Thursday afternoon that he would kick off a four-day bus tour today in Norfolk, Va., at the famed USS Wisconsin battleship—a now-obvious allusion to Ryan and the role into which he has been thrust.
But most importantly, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee signaled to the Democrats that if they want a base war for control of the Oval Office, one that will pit President Obama and liberal Democrats against Mitt Romney and social and fiscal conservatives, they are going to get it during the next three months.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is author of a budget-cutting plan that proposes, among other things, to privatize Medicare.
In tapping such a politician to be his running mate, Romney has now incorporated Ryan’s financial ideas and ideals into his own economic mantra—the prime calling card the former businessman has touted in arguing that he is the best candidate to resurrect the US economy from the Great Recession.
“With energy and vision, Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party,” Romney told a cheering crowd as the bunting-drapped dreadnought sat anchored behind him. “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.”
Romney added: “Paul Ryan 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.”
Like Romney, Ryan is also an abortion opponent, a key litmus test for both liberal and conservative activists.
A popular choice on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—which openly advocated for Ryan’s selection this week—may not receive the same reception on the opinion page of The New York Times—and that, apparently, is how the Romney campaign wants it.
Romney indicated so much when he said in an interview aired Thursday on NBC’s Nightly News that “I certainly expect to have a person that has a strength of character, a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country.”
There is no understating the political risk Romney, 65, has taken with his choice.
Portman, for example, had been offered by party regulars as an experienced, even-keeled, do-no-harm pick, someone who is not only a veteran congressman but hails from a pivotal battleground state and is an experienced debater after playing stand-in for past presidential nominees in their campaign debate prep sessions.
Instead, Romney went with someone whose exposure on the national stage has been limited to his tenure as chairman of the Budget Committee, as author of the budget plan, and as a surrogate campaigner for him during this year’s hotly contested Wisconsin primary.
Palin’s implosion four years ago under the glare of the national media and political spotlight illustrate the perils Romney confronts in making Ryan what has long been considered the first of a nominee’s presidential-level decisions.
No less than Romney himself has set the measuring stick, declaring beyond personal compatibility and economic vision that his running mate would have to encompass the primary qualification of any vice president: the instant ability to step into the role of the nation’s president and commander in chief.
If he were to be sworn in as vice president next January, Ryan would be a little more than a year younger than John F. Kennedy was when he was sworn in as president in 1961, but he would also be five years younger than Obama was when he was sworn in—and Republicans already complain that the incumbent Democrat is too young and inexperienced for his job.
And if, as Republicans have repeatedly complained, Obama had no private sector experience as a former community organizer and state senator, what does it say that Ryan has spent virtually his entire career in the public sector sphere, as a congressional staffer, political speechwriter, and member of Congress?
In that context, the question arises: Did Romney feel his campaign is in such a state that he needed to do something so bold?
Three recent polls by CNN, Fox News, and Reuters/Ipsos have shown him trailing Obama by up to 9 percentage points, a sizable gap in what had heretofore been cast as a nearly even race.
David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist, on Friday dismissed the notion that the president and his Democratic Party had pulled so far ahead in the campaign. But both campaigns have internal polling that guides their daily moves, and Romney surely has telemetry suggesting how different running mate picks would have played with the GOP base.
Publicly available data in the CNN survey, released Thursday, showed that 28 percent of Republicans would have favored Florida Senator Marco Rubio as Romney’s running mate.
Ryan was tied for second, at 16 percent, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
None of the other potential running mates tested on the poll, including Portman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, rose above the single digits.
During a media briefing on Friday to set up the bus tour, a senior Romney adviser sloughed off horserace figures in the recent polls and any significance they might project for the campaign’s current state.
“Guys, it’s the middle of summer. It’s the doldrums. It’s the middle of the Olympics. There has been no national news, anything that would push these numbers from minus three to minus nine points,” the adviser said. “That’s a big jump. You have to have some kind of precipitating event to move numbers.”
Instead, the adviser suggested history shows that a challenger like Romney gains a bigger post-convention bounce than an incumbent like Obama, in part because of the excitement generated by a freshly coined running mate.
And the adviser took heart from polls in individual battleground states—like Virginia where Romney and Ryan start campaigning today, and North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio where the bus tour also visits through Tuesday—showing stronger enthusiasm in 2012 for the GOP than the Democratic Party.
“It reinforces the point that the intensity in this election is behind the Republicans, is behind those voters who disapprove of the job Obama is doing,” the adviser said.
And that is the bet Romney has apparently made by providing the GOP base with what it said it wanted for his running mate: a bold choice.