Four years ago, GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin -- then a relatively obscure governor of a remote state -- made a barn-burning speech at the Republican National Convention that vastly exceeded the punditry's (admittedly low) expectations. Although things went downhill from there for Palin, it was a clutch performance that helped establish the then-governor of Alaska as a national figure.
The expectations will be quite a bit higher for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP's current nominee for vice president, when he steps up to the microphone Wednesday night. Although hardly a household name, he's perceived as a rising star in the GOP firmament, admired by both tea-party followers and mainstream Republicans for trying to tackle big problems regardless of the political consequences. His reputation is that of a smart, serious lawmaker who brings a clear vision to Mitt Romney's campaign for what "small government" looks like.
Part of Ryan's task Wednesday will be to articulate that vision in a way that viewers understand and welcome. The other part is to counter the efforts by Democrats and President Obama's reelection campaign over the last year and a half to turn him into a symbol of Republican social Darwinism -- the intellectual leader behind the push to "end Medicare as we know it," slash funding for Medicaid and deny Pell grants to thousands of needy college students.