Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and his running… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )
NORFOLK, Va. — Abandoning his trademark caution, Mitt Romney selected Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate Saturday in a move that reframed the presidential race as an ideological battle over the size of government and the fate of Medicare, the popular healthcare program for seniors.
Standing in this naval city before the battleship Wisconsin, which was draped in red, white and blue bunting, Romney said he had selected the 42-year-old House budget chairman because he had displayed the intellect and legislative savvy to tackle the nation's fiscal crises while staying rooted in the small-town values of his hometown of Janesville, Wis.
"Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party," Romney told a crowd of several thousand supporters in Norfolk. "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."
Ryan echoed that theme by alluding to his controversial plan to overhaul Medicare — which he has compared to hugging the third rail of politics — and vowing that he and Romney wouldn't "duck the tough issues."
"We will lead. We won't blame others. We will take responsibility," the seven-term congressman said during his first public appearance as Romney's running mate. In a testament to the risk involved, however, neither man on Saturday detailed Ryan's plan, which includes major tax cuts and dramatic reductions in domestic spending, including moving Medicare toward a voucher system.
Some top Republicans privately expressed concern about Ryan's limited experience beyond government, which complicates their efforts to portray President Obama as out of his depth, but the public response of leaders including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and PresidentGeorge W. Bush was almost universally positive. Seven hours after the official announcement, Romney aides said they had collected more than $2 million from enthusiastic supporters.
Democrats, in turn, were almost gleeful over Romney's choice.
In the latest iteration of the Ryan plan, Medicare would remain in place for those 55 and older, but younger Americans would have the option to receive a set amount of "premium support" to purchase private insurance.
Though Romney, who supports Ryan's plan, has emphasized that traditional Medicare would be preserved as an option, he has not specified what level of "premium support" he would offer to that younger generation. That has given Democrats an opening to charge that the newly minted Republican ticket would radically scale back Medicare benefits.
Foreshadowing the pitched fight ahead, Sen. Charles E. Schumer accused Ryan of trying to "essentially end Medicare" while providing "dramatic cuts for the wealthy." Ryan's plans, the New York Democrat said, are "out of sync with all but a narrow, ultraconservative slice of the electorate."
"Mitt Romney clearly saw his campaign was stumbling, and he came up with the best 'Hail Mary' pass he could muster," Schumer said, in comments echoed by other Democrats. (After a rocky foreign tour and a steady assault from the Obama team on Romney's record at his venture firm Bain Capital, the GOP candidate's favorability ratings have slumped. Obama led his rival among registered voters by 49% to 40% in the latest Fox News survey last week.)
At events in Virginia on Saturday, Romney dismissed the early attempts to define his running mate. "I'm happy today. I hope you're happy," the fired-up former Massachusetts governor said as the Ashland crowd roared its approval.
"The Democrats are working very hard today. They're pulling out all their books. They're looking at every vote. They're interviewing everybody in his neighborhood. But they're not going to find anything," Romney said.
While Democrats would "besmirch the office of the presidency" by dragging the race into the dirt, Romney argued, Ryan will appeal to the "better angels of the American people" and make the race about issues and a vision for America.
The budding friendship between Romney and Ryan — whose names are now seamlessly integrated in the Romney logo with its overlapping red, white and blue Rs — was on full display Saturday as the two men traveled from Virginia to North Carolina.
After the announcement, the new team headed to Homemades by Suzanne, an award-winning pie shop that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made famous with a visit in 2008. After asking for rhubarb and blueberry pies — which were not available — Romney and his new running mate picked up apple, pecan and chocolate pies for $10.95 each. Behind the pie counter, with reporters crowding around them, Ryan, much like his running mate, deflected questions and stayed on message.
While he acknowledged that accepting the vice presidential role was an easy decision — "We've got to save the country" — he said he'd let Romney's top aide, Beth Myers, "tell the story."