Paul Ryan points out his father, Paul Ryan, in a photo a supporter handed… (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)
JANESVILLE, Wis. – Returning to the high school where he launched his career in politics and was also prom king, Paul D. Ryan attended his last rally on Monday before he travels to the Republican National Convention, capping off more than two weeks of campaigning as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Ryan appeared to be trying out some new material before the convention, telling voters that communities needed to help themselves, rather than rely on government. He praised Janesville’s food bank, its community hospital, its YMCAand Boys and Girls Clubs, telling the crowd that it was Janesville and towns like it throughout the country that the Romney-Ryan campaign was trying to protect.
“These are things that we do in our communities that bring us together, that help our neighbors in need. They call it civil society. I call it Janesville, Wisc.,” he said. “What is important is that our government respects this, that our government honors this, that our government works for the people and not the other way around.”
PHOTOS: Paul Ryan's past
“We live together in freedom. What we do in our communities is we look out for one another, that’s what’s so special. That’s what government can’t replace or displace,” he said.
The talk of self-reliance comes as federal disaster agencies help prepare communities around the Gulf Coast for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to become a hurricane. Ryan alluded to it – sort of.
“While we take stock of our community, I think we should right now put in our minds and our prayers the people who have been victims of Hurricane Isaac and those now who stand in the path of the storm,” he said.
Ryan also delved more deeply into his autobiography, starting his speech with the story of his great-great-grandfather, who moved to Janesville after fleeing the potato famine in Ireland.
“We’re fifth-generation Janesville, Wisc., natives. And it’s not a unique story, it’s an American story,” he said, referring in part to his large extended family, which took up the first 10 rows of folding chairs at the gym at Joseph A. Craig High School. “The reason our family came here is because of what this country stands for.”
This gym was where Ryan launched his political career, according to Adam Ryan, Paul’s cousin, who was attending the rally. Adam, who graduated from high school in the same year as Paul, 1988, was voted the class’ “Most likely to succeed” to Paul’s “Biggest brown-noser.”The Ryans ran for president and vice president of their junior high class, launching their campaign in this gym, Adam Ryan said. In that election, Paul Ryan was at the top of the ticket. The Ryans won that election.
Twenty-five years later, Ryan was welcomed back by the school’s cougar mascot, cheerleaders in blue and silver, and a clapping crowd wearing foam cheese hats. He was introduced by his brother Tobin, who also still lives in Janesville, and appeared to wipe tears from his eyes when he took the stage.
Janesville, predominantly a blue-collar town, was hit hard by the economic downturn. GM decided to close a plant here in 2008, a fact that Ryan acknowledged in his speech.
“We’ve been hit hard, we’ve got a hard knock, but we are hearty people,” he said. He referred to a few “buddies” who got laid off from GM, attended community college and got new jobs. “That’s the kind of thing we need to do – pick ourselves up, help people in need,” he said.
Unemployment in Rock County, where Janesville is located, is 8.9%, down from 9.5% a year ago.
Polls indicate that Wisconsin is now a swing state, in part because of the Ryan bump. Its 10 electoral college votes could tip the election in a close race.
“Earlier in the summer, you could legitimately argue that the state wasn’t a toss-up,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin. “Now with Ryan on the ticket, as of our last polling, I think it’s legitimately a toss-up.”
Obama held a consistent lead in the polls throughout the summer, Franklin said, which was a 5-percentage point lead in the beginning of August. After Ryan was picked, Obama’s lead had narrowed to 3 points, which is well within the poll’s margin of error.
That may be because of voters such as Charlie O’Connor, 38, of DeForest, Wisc. O’Connor was “on the fence” about Romney, but is now a supporter, he said, while waiting for Ryan to appear at the Janesville rally.
“I was on the edge,” he said. “But Paul Ryan, with his Wisconsin beliefs and ways, I’m for him.”