Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan disembark… (Saul Loeb / AFP/GettyImages )
WASHINGTON — With his surprise decision to run with Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Mitt Romney did something truly rare in today's politics: He united the left and the right.
Both sides loved the vice presidential choice. For Romney and his fellow Republicans, the selection of the author of a controversial plan to shrink the size of government served to fire up the party's conservative base. For President Obama and fellow Democrats, the pick offered a way to divert focus from the president's record on jobs and the economy to the Republican effort to alter Medicare and domestic programs.
Whichever side is right, Romney appears to have concluded that success was iffy on his original course — to make the election a referendum on Obama. The new and decidedly different trajectory will make the fall election more of a choice between contrasting visions of the future — a frame that Obama had already been attempting to put around the contest.
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"Romney must have recognized that what he was doing was not working and he needed to shake the race up," said Scott Reed, who managed Republican nominee Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.
"He's rolled the dice. The conservative base is now really energized," he added.
For Romney, the new course will place a premium on mobilizing Republican voters, something that PresidentGeorge W. Bushdid successfully in 2004.
"Mitt Romney and his campaign have decided strategically that this election is a base election and it is about motivating Republicans and conservatives and not about persuading swing voters," Matthew Dowd, a top Bush strategist in 2004, wrote on the ABC News website. "This Ryan pick isn't going to help close the gap with Latino voters. This isn't going to persuade suburban, middle-class moms to support the ticket. This pick is an acknowledgment on the Romney campaign's part that they see their only path to victory as motivating their base."
By tapping a hero of conservative activists and thinkers, Romney reassured a restive Republican right. Many conservatives will never be convinced that Romney shares their deep beliefs, because he governed as a moderate in Massachusetts, where he signed into a law an individual health insurance mandate that became a model for Obama's plan. Ryan, by comparison, pushed a budget plan that would dramatically cut domestic programs and curtail Medicare spending, in part with an optional plan to offer future seniors stipends rather than coverage.
In recent days, influential conservative voices, including the Weekly Standard magazine, had launched an aggressive push for Ryan — even while acknowledging, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized in making the case for the Wisconsin congressman, that some leaders of his own party consider the 42-year-old too young and too risky and feared that his selection "would make Medicare and the House budget the issue, not the economy."
Ryan poses several enticing possibilities for Romney, in the short term and through the November election. With Ryan as his ticket mate, Romney substantially enhances the prospect for a harmonious national party convention this month in Tampa, Fla., an important launch pad for the fall campaign. Ryan "will excite and energize social conservatives, who will play a critical role in the outcome of the election," predicted Ralph Reed, an evangelical Christian strategist who said he had known Ryan for 20 years.
In the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win, Ryan should help improve Romney's chances of carrying Wisconsin, where Obama holds a modest lead in the latest public polling. Wisconsin has not been part of the Romney campaign's recent battleground-state ad buys, leading some to conclude that it was out of reach for the Republicans.
In Ryan, a Roman Catholic, Romney also now has a counter to Vice President Joe Biden, also a Catholic. At the same time, Ryan's youth — he looks far younger than his 42 years — will provide a sharp age contrast with Biden, who turns 70 in November, when the two men debate this fall.
Many Republican politicians had expected the cautious, conventional Romney to make a safer pick, and his gamble in selecting Ryan allowed his campaign to portray him as bold. A statement from campaign headquarters in Boston quoted former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who had been promoting a Latino, Sen. Marco Rubio, for the job, praising Ryan as "a courageous choice."