TAMPA, Fla. — America got its first real close-up Wednesday of a rising young conservative likely to play a central role in national politics for years to come.
What they saw was a self-styled happy warrior, earnest and eager to convince the voting public that the answer to the nation's economic woes is a Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan partnership of freedom-loving, can-do problem-solvers.
"We don't have that much time. But if we are serious, and smart, and we lead, we can do this," said Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who accepted his nomination as vice president Wednesday.
It was a budget chairman's speech overwhelmingly focused on the economy, with only brief detours into culture and foreign policy.
It was a speech by one of the youngest vice-presidential candidates ever, claiming the mantle of adult virtues such as seriousness, frugality and accountability.
It was a speech meant to do three things: indict President Barack Obama's stewardship of the nation; testify to Romney's business skills and character and leadership; and help fill in the blanks about Ryan himself, who has never run for national or statewide office.
Ryan's case against Obama was intended to be hard-hitting but not overly sneering, treating 2008 Obama voters as people who made an understandable choice four years ago only to be terribly let down since then.
Ryan spent less time making the case for Romney, but got to it right off the bat. The fourth and fifth sentences of his speech: "Our nominee is sure ready. His whole life has prepared him for this moment."
Meanwhile, the sketch Ryan provided of himself Wednesday touched on his father's death when he was 16, his mother's challenges, his Catholic faith, and his fixed Midwestern roots.
"I live on the same block where I grew up. We belong to the same parish where I was baptized. Janesville is that kind of place," he said.
In echoes of Ann Romney's tribute to women the night before, he declared his mother Betty, present in the hall with other family members, as his role model.
And he wore his youth like a badge when he made fun of the older Romney's taste in music, and expressed economic solidarity with young Americans, saying "college graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life."
Ryan crafted Wednesday's acceptance address with the help of two speechwriters who worked for President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney: Matt Scully and John McConnell.
But the themes, tone and language was pretty familiar to those who've followed Ryan's career: his fondness for drawing stark philosophical lines, but without the blustering aggression of a Chris Christie or the very sharp cultural edge of a Sarah Palin; the aggressive attempt to move from defense to offense on Medicare; and some of the speech's more ideological touches, pitting individual freedom and self-reliance against what he suggested was a collectivist vision of the left — "the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners."
Ryan didn't need to sell himself to "the base" this week. The Republican base already has consolidated behind Romney, is already motivated to beat Obama, and is already enamored of Ryan — his youth, ideology, policies, plans and ardor for reversing the growth of government. Party delegates heartily cheered Ryan on Wednesday.
But he did need to define himself to the millions of Americans who don't know him, haven't made up their minds, or reside somewhere between the two great partisan tribes of a polarized nation.
In a Gallup poll released Wednesday, the public's views of Ryan were mixed and incomplete: 38 percent had a favorable view of the House budget chair, 36 percent had an unfavorable view, and 26 percent didn't know enough to say or had no opinion.
The poll illustrated just how fast sentiment is forming on Ryan. Just before his selection was announced Aug. 12, only 42 percent of adults could offer an opinion about him; Roughly a week later, 74 percent could.
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