Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin campaigns… (Jessica Reilly / Associated…)
DUBUQUE, Iowa -- It was Monday evening, near the end of a Republican rally at Loras College, a small Catholic institution on the banks of the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. Paul D. Ryan, dressed casually in a blue Oxford shirt and khakis, stood on an ad hoc stage in the center of the college’s field house.
Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, had been talking for about 25 minutes to an overflow crowd of nearly 1,000, with sound piped outside to another 500 or so supporters who couldn’t get past the fire marshal.
“It’s not too late to turn this around,” Ryan said. “I am here simply to humbly ask you for your help.”
Anybody walking in just at that moment might have assumed Ryan was talking about recent polls showing that support for the GOP ticket had slipped in a number of states that are supposed to be hotly contested. But Ryan was not talking about polls, not by a long shot. He was talking about a subject dear to this GOP crowd: what they perceive to be the dismal direction of the country under President Obama.
“We can’t afford four more years like these last four years,” Ryan said. “We cannot afford more debt, more doubt, more despair, more decline.”
Still, the polls were not far from the minds of some of the supporters who turned out. The most recent Des Moines Register poll found Obama leading Mitt Romney by 4 percentage points in the state. (Two percent said they were undecided, and 10% said they could change their minds.) It was impossible to find anyone who was not upbeat about the Republican ticket’s prospects on Nov. 6.
“Our chances are still pretty good,” said Kevin Stevens, 50, a financial planner who wore a “Mitt Happens” T-shirt. “The only poll that matters is in the voting booth on election day.”
The recent claim, advanced by some Republicans, that bad polling methodology has skewed results of surveys to Romney’s detriment in battleground states has hit home with some Iowans.
“We have to look at the internals of the polls to see how they are weighting them with Democrats and Republicans,” said Paul Beck, 49, a painting contractor from Elkader, a town in the northeast part of the state. “I think the polls are fairly even.”
Before Ryan arrived, Beck said that the GOP’s emphasis on debt reduction hit home with him. And that’s not because he is faring poorly – his business is doing well, he said, although his wife, Cathy, a nurse, was recently laid off – but he is worried about the future.
“The national debt is a major crisis,” Beck said. “If we don’t do something to stop it, we are heading the way of Europe, which would be a disaster.”
Ryan was initially joined onstage by his wife, Janna, and their three children. As he spoke, he occasionally glanced at a black music stand to look at his speech. A large digital “debt clock,” introduced by the Republicans at their convention in Tampa, Fla., hung from the ceiling, reminding anyone who glanced at it that the debt is $16 trillion and counting. Ryan noted that the debt has increased $5 trillion since President Obama took office.
Ryan acknowleged that when the president took office, the country was in trouble. “Here’s the problem: He didn’t fix the mess; in so many ways, we’re worse off.”
He ticked off dismal — if occasionally selective — figures on the rates of unemployment, poverty and job growth: ”We have had unemployment above 8% in America for 43 straight months.”
“Just the other day on TV, he said he can’t change Washington from the inside,” Ryan said, referring to a “60 Minutes” interview with the president. “Isn’t that why we elect presidents? If he can’t change Washington, I suggest we change presidents.” The crowd roared its approval.
The Wisconsin congressman will spend Tuesday in eastern Iowa, traveling by bus to Clinton, Muscatine and Burlington, with several members of his extended family. On Wednesday, the day of the first presidential debate, Ryan plans to be in the battleground state of Virginia, preparing for his Oct. 11 debate with Vice President Joe Biden. On Thursday, he is scheduled to appear at a rally with Romney in Fishersville, Va.
As a good politician must, Ryan played the hometown card with the Iowa crowd. Although he grew up two hours away in Janesville in neighboring Wisconsin, he said his grandfather attended Loras. And he sang the beginning of a commercial jingle familiar to many who grew up in these parts, the theme song for Dubuque ham, produced for many decades by the Dubuque Packing Co., once a major local employer that was sold in the 1990s and eventually closed down.
“It makes you hungry thinking about it, doesn’t it?” Ryan joked with the crowd.