Delegates cheer Republican vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan. (Louis DeLuca, Dallas Morning…)
TAMPA, Fla. — When Mitt Romney was searching for a ticket mate, Republicans pleaded: Don't pick another Sarah Palin.
So it may come as a surprise that, in at least one important way, he ended up doing precisely that with Paul D. Ryan.
Like Palin four years ago, the Wisconsin congressman has captured the heart of the Republican convention. The thunderous response to his speech Wednesday night was the latest indication.
There are clearly distinctions between Ryan's national experience, policy expertise and temperament, and hers. That he was a Washington insider was apparent from his references to working in the capital with Jack Kemp, a conservative hero from the Reagan era.
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The same speechwriter who crafted Palin's national debut address to the 2008 convention, Matthew Scully, polished Ryan's words. But though Ryan was speaking in Tampa's hockey arena, there wasn't a memorable phrase on par with Palin's self-description as "an average hockey mom."
At the same time, it's hard to imagine Palin making a hard economic argument in layman's terms, or tossing "GDP" — gross domestic product — into a partisan rouser.
Yet despite their differences, Ryan is on a new path to a similar goal. And comparisons between the two most recent Republican vice presidential nominees are not entirely superficial.
Ryan, like the former Alaska governor, appeals strongly to non-establishment Republicans. He is helping to seal a closer bond between conservative true believers and the party's old-style presidential nominee (as Palin did for John McCain in 2008). Palin strengthened the McCain ticket with social and religious conservatives. Ryan, whose antiabortion record has been called "pristine," meshes with them too, in ways that Romney may never be able to.
Ryan is also tight ideologically with tea party Republicans, the party's newest and in some ways most energetic supporters. Like the vice presidential nominee, who has carved out a specialty in Congress on the federal budget, they are consumed by the problems posed by government's massive debt and spending growth.
As a running mate, Ryan, 42, provides a youthful counter to a presidential nominee who is a generation older. Palin, 44 when she was chosen, did too.
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Already, Ryan is emerging as a cultural figure — though not yet on a Palinesque scale. A Northeastern fitness chain, the New York Sports Club, is promoting a "Paul Ryan sale. Trims abs and budgets." His fondness for bow hunting and an ability to catch fish barehanded echo Palin's penchant for shooting caribou and moose.
Ryan's emergence as a celebrity, like Palin's, relies on more than a smidgen of sex appeal. His bare-chested image, in a blurry photo snapped years back, recently became a sensation on tabloid TV.
The Romney camp hasn't been shy about rushing him to the forefront of campaign advertising. In a recent TV commercial about Medicare, Ryan's image appears more often than Romney's.
For a Republican presidential campaign that suffers from a gender gap among female voters — especially younger, single women — a little political eye candy probably can't hurt.
But those who know Ryan and have worked with him over the years say that on a deeper level, he is fundamentally different from Palin.
"This candy has nutritional value," said Paul Wilson, Ryan's longtime media consultant. "This is a very serious person."
Ryan has spent virtually all his adult years in Washington, the last 13 as a member of Congress. During that time, he developed a reputation as a policy enthusiast. Palin's image as an outsider encompassed her biggest vulnerability. When she burst into the nation's consciousness, voters expressed concern about her inexperience.
Ryan, by an overwhelming margin, is viewed favorably by Republicans (73% favorable to 9% unfavorable, in a new Gallup poll). That compares closely with GOP voter support for Palin, which stood at 83% at the time of the 2008 election.
But her standing among independent voters had fallen sharply over the course of the fall campaign, as doubts rose about her presidential qualifications. Female voters, whom the GOP ticket hoped to attract, turned away.
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Ryan has a sturdier resume, but like Palin, he lacks foreign policy experience. The next two months will indicate whether he can convince voters that his budget expertise qualifies him to take over as president or whether he too will slip in their estimation.
The question is an open one, if the latest national polling is any indication. Independents, who could well decide the presidential election, are evenly split over Ryan. Almost 1 in 3 was not willing or able to venture an opinion, one way or the other.