A man holds a cutout head shot of Republican vice presidential candidate… ( Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
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.
That's no mean feat. While cutting federal spending is seen by many Republicans as an inherently good thing, Democrats are trying to persuade the broader public that Ryan is an ideologue whose proposals would hurt the elderly and the needy, damage the economy and help the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. It will be interesting to see whether Ryan's speech plays mainly to the GOP faithful or to an electorate that's not sold on his bold ideas.
My colleagues Jim Newton, Doyle McManus, Michael McGough, David Horsey, Patt Morrison and Dan Turner will be joining me on Twitter to comment on speeches by Ryan, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and several others who'll be taking the podium Wednesday. You can follow our tweets on Twitter or here, starting at 6:30 p.m.
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