WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, gets these glowing testimonials on the campaign trail: "An articulate spokesperson for Gov. Romney's vision." ''A serious guy with serious ideas." Those are the appraisals from none other than Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Not your typical partisan line of criticism. But unlike the Obama camp's initially dismissive approach toward Sarah Palin in 2008, the president's team is portraying Ryan as the picture of gravitas. It's all about building him up to better tear him and Romney down.
From the moment Romney picked the Wisconsin congressman as his vice presidential candidate, Obama's campaign has redoubled its efforts to draw attention to the Republican budget plan Ryan wrote and that the GOP majority in the House passed. In Ryan, Obama's campaign team in Chicago concluded they had the perfect counterpoint to an election that had the makings of a referendum on the president's handling of the lackluster economy.
"They are playing on our turf right now," Obama pollster Joel Benenson said Thursday.
Obama's team has focused particularly on the Ryan budget's proposal to alter Medicare, seeking to sow doubt and fears among older voters. Romney's camp, anticipating the criticism, engaged in the debate head-on, launching a pre-emptive ad that takes issue with Obama's health care plan and its reductions in Medicare spending
"I'm sure they have convinced themselves that doing that helps them politically somehow," Romney's senior adviser, Kevin Madden, said. "But I think it's an admission that Paul Ryan is the real deal when it comes to talking about ideas and issues."
"Team Obama clearly would rather run against Ryan/Romney than Romney/Ryan," adds political strategist Mark McKinnon, a top adviser in the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. "They want to make the election a referendum on Ryan's budget."
To be sure, in conservative circles Ryan is well-regarded as a lawmaker steeped in policy and budget data. And among colleagues from both parties he is seen as a smart, genial and forceful advocate of his positions. But Ryan, a youthful-looking, 42-year-old, seven-term representative from Wisconsin, is not well-known to the general public and ripe for being defined by both camps.
In raising Ryan's stature, Obama and his campaign aides are choosing to legitimize him as an intellectual leader of the party's conservative wing. That reverses the approach Obama's aides took in 2008 following McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate. At the time, the Obama camp saw Palin as an untested, underexperienced candidate who undermined McCain's main argument against Obama as a first-term senator too callow to occupy the White House.
The Obama camp's first reaction to Palin's selection came in a news release: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." And while Obama dialed back the criticism, the campaign still used Palin to focus on McCain's selection process, calling his management "impulsive" and "erratic."
While Obama aides say they are equally surprised by Ryan's selection, impulsive and erratic aren't how they are defining Romney's choice. Instead, they cast it as an affirmation of Romney's true ideological position.
What's more, the announcement of a running mate usually showers massive media attention on a presidential challenger, leaving the opposition momentarily in the dark. But Ryan's selection allowed Obama to stay in the fray, reinforcing his argument that Romney would implement the Republican budget with its deep spending cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy.
Obama aides point to headlines in Florida newspapers following Ryan's selection that focus on how older Americans would be affected by Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare by creating vouchers, or payments in support of premiums, that would require future older generations to obtain their own health care plans. Independent analysts say seniors would likely have greater out-of-pocket costs.
The Romney camp has not hidden from the issue. It has responded by drawing attention to Obama's health care plan, which includes reductions in Medicare spending of $700 billion over 10 years. Those cuts come from health providers, not from benefits to seniors. But while Romney has said he would repeal Obama's health plan and reinstate the Medicare funds that Obama would cut, Ryan's budget included the same reductions as Obama and slows spending even more.
Asked about that on Thursday, Ryan offered a budget process answer, saying he would not have included the $700 billion in cuts if Obama hadn't done it first.
"He put those cuts there," Ryan said. "We would never have done it in the first place."
Often, running mate selections give challengers greater media exposure that is on balance positive for days. But Ryan presents a "target rich environment," said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway, a top aide in Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008.
"Palin was more of a blank slate — the first woman on the Republican ticket. It was easier to roll her out without a lot of substance and people got excited," he said. "A vice presidential pick with a record to pick on minimizes the honeymoon."