(4 of 5)
Still, some conservatives fret that Romney is now stuck with the worst of both worlds: carrying the baggage of an unpopular Medicare plan without embracing it enough to excite small-government conservatives or develop a mandate for the idea should he be elected. "Most people feel that if you're going to have Ryan on the ticket, you might as well hit Medicare head-on," says one GOP operative.
Liberals say there's an obvious reason for muffling the Ryan message. The public doesn't support balancing the budget through huge spending cuts. Columnists may extol Ryan's budgets as visionary and hardheaded, but their particulars have never been popular. For instance, only 18% of Americans would support major cuts to Medicare to reduce the deficit, according to a June 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation poll. "The policies in the Ryan budget are deeply unattractive to both seniors and middle-class voters," says Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress.
It's fair to say that Ryan the candidate is a pure wonk in his diagnosis of America's economic ills. But when it comes to solutions, he is often just fuzzy. And it's not just health care. Grilled during a Sept. 30 Fox News appearance about how much Romney's proposed income tax cuts would cost, Ryan wouldn't answer. "I don't have the time. It would take me too long to go through all of the math," he said. Voters may be taking notice. "We keep talking about China and jobs, and then we talk about the unemployment," a woman at a town hall in Clinton, Iowa, told Ryan days later. "But where are the answers? I mean, why aren't you more specific? ... What are your plans?"
A Winner Either Way
Of course, campaigns are about more than policy details. And Ryan has been an asset in less tangible ways. His speech was a Tampa highlight, thrilling Republicans (and infuriating Democrats, who accused him of brazen lies). He has turned out to be a natural on the stump, more at ease and plain-speaking than the often starchy Romney. Dropping by a restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, Ryan worked in a reference to his days of tarpon and bone fishing in the Florida Keys. In Orlando, his face brightened when a woman who'd frantically waved her hand to ask a question joked that she felt like the eager Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter. "I'm old enough to get that Horshack joke!" the 42-year-old Ryan quipped, drawing a round of giggles. Even Jon Stewart had to interrupt a recent anti-Ryan rant to call him "chiseled-chin McNicey face ... He's really good-looking."
Ryan has also been an important Romney messenger to blue collar voters who may be suspicious of a multimillionaire venture capitalist charged by Democrats with laying off dozens of workers. Ryan has stumped repeatedly in the industrial Midwest, touting his small-town Wisconsin roots, his Catholicism and his love of hunting.
And then there's the electoral map. Obama's durable lead in several battleground states limits Romney's path to an electoral majority. But Ryan's presence on the ticket has helped put in play Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes, which could be enough to rescue Romney if he loses Ohio. One respected poll recently showed Romney just two points behind in the Badger State.