GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, coming here to the state with one of the oldest median ages, on Monday morning criticized President Obama for his health care law and said the Republican ticket would be more likely to put Medicare on sounder financial footing.
“Medicare should not be a piggybank for Obamacare!” Ryan said.
It was their first unscripted event since Ryan was named the vice president candidate nine days ago, with a town hall meeting where voters could ask questions. But little went awry, and most of the event was carefully choreographed by the Romney campaign.
Under blue skies on a St. Anselm’s College quad, a giant banner – “America’s Comeback Team” – was draped over a brick building covered in ivy. Some 3,000 attendees waved little American flags that were handed out from the campaign. It was Romney’s 100th town hall meeting, a tally that includes both personal meetings and those conducted over the phone.
New Hampshire has become an increasing focus in the presidential election. President Obama was in the state on Saturday, using his third trip of the year to rail against Republican plans on taxes and changing Medicare.
“You would think they would avoid talking about Medicare, given the fact that both of them have proposed to voucherize the Medicare system,” Obama said during a campaign stop in Windham, N.H. “But I guess they figure the best defense is to try to go on offense.”
Ryan and Romney seemed to be eager for the debate, and hoping to cast it in their own terms.
“We keep hearing about Medicare lately from the president,” Ryan said. “We want this debate, we need this debate, and we are going to win this debate on Medicare.”
Ryan criticized President Obama for using $716 billion in savings from Medicare and applying it to his health care law. But Ryan did not mention that his own budget plan also used the same amount of savings, but applied them to different uses.
He noted that his mother has been on Medicare for 10 years, and that it helped him and his mother take care of his grandmother as she suffered from Alzheimer’s.
“It’s not just a program with numbers and words,” Ryan said. “It’s personal security that has been there for my family when we needed.”
Ryan was planning on Monday afternoon to visit the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston, meeting for the first time the staff for a campaign that he joined a week ago. After two days last week of campaigning together, Romney and Ryan had not planned to campaign together until the Republican National Convention next week.
But Romney campaign advisers, noting the chemistry that Romney and Ryan have and the excitement they draw from crowds, decided to schedule another event for them in New Hampshire. The campaign had initially planned to announce the vice presidential selection in New Hampshire, but had to move it back a day so that Ryan could attend a memorial service in his Wisconsin congressional district.
Town hall meetings can provide off-the-cuff moments with candidates, who are forced to respond to questions from any voter who can get before a microphone. But on Monday, Romney and Ryan were thrown few curveballs from the crowd.
The only time they seemed to be put on the spot was when topics turned to foreign policy.
“Our guys are coming home in body bags,” one man said. “If you guys take over in Washington, what are you going to do about this damn mess in Afghanistan?”
Romney criticized President Obama for not talking about the topic enough, saying he ought to “time and time again” address the American public about what’s happening with troops overseas. But Romney himself didn’t have a fundamental difference in policy.
“I will do everything in my power to transition from our military to their military as soon as possible,” Romney said. “Bring our men and women home and do so in a way consistent with our mission, which is to keep Afghanistan from being overrun by a new entity which would allow Afghanistan to be a launching point for terror again like it was on 9/11.”
New Hampshire offers a mere four electoral votes, but in some election forecasts that may be enough to decide the entire race. It is the only swing state in New England, a region where the other 29 electoral votes are all but assured to be given to the Democratic incumbent.
But New Hampshire has shown a willingness to buck the regional trends. Three of the past five elections have been decided by 1 percentage point or less. And, as Granite Staters like to mention, if Al Gore had won New Hampshire, the state of Florida – and its weeks-long recount – would not have mattered (Gore lost New Hampshire by 7,211, while Ralph Nader got 22,198 votes).
The state offers a national barometer. If Romney is unable to secure independents in New Hampshire – a state that fits closely with his brand of politics – he is unlikely to fare well in other crucial swing states.
Ryan is not a complete stranger to New Hampshire. He visited in February 2010, headlining a fundraiser and speaking at St. Anselm College. At the time he dismissed any speculation that he would seek the presidency.
“I’m not one of those people,” he said at the time, according to the Portsmouth Herald. “I’m not seeking a promotion.”
Voters here had some knowledge of Ryan before seeing him.
At least one woman brought a cheesehead, in apparent homage to the vice presidential nominee’s beloved Green Bay Packers. One questioner noted that her son was skipping work to attend the event, another said her son was skipping the first day of school (“We’re not going to clap for that,” Ryan said).
Gene Nelson, a 64-year-old retiree from Bedford, N.H., said at first he was “spooked” that Ryan would trigger a bitter divide and give Democrats ample ammunition. He said he’s been impressed with Ryan, and is optimistic that there will be a debate over how to rein in growing health care costs.
“What I’m hoping is there will be a genuine debate on the issue, and not each side trying to lambaste each other with some pie-in-the-face caricature,” Nelson said.
Donna Sweet, a 55-year-old Republican from Penacook, N.H., said she was giddy over the pick.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s an awesome pick,” Sweet said, while wearing a “Mommas for Mitt” T-shirt. “Him picking Paul Ryan, it’s like a gold star on top of the gold star he already had. He couldn’t have picked a better running mate.”
“I like Romney, and I think he’ll be a good president just on his own,” said Mark Surmeier, a 56-year-old Republican who was traveling from Mascoutah, Ill. “But with Ryan, the two work together like salt and pepper. Some things are just meant to be a pair.”
Ryan is planning to be back in New Hampshire on Saturday for a fundraiser – and possibly a public event—and Romney campaign advisers say they plan to use him a lot in the Granite State, particularly in southern areas where voters share his Catholic faith.
“We are small government, we are frugal economic government,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire-based adviser. “Ryan also radiates an energy, a commitment to these things. He’s the kind of politician who’s not been afraid to put his name on things, even if people criticize him. That’s respected here.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.