HIGH POINT, N.C. — In Paul Ryan’s high-energy debut as Republican vice presidential candidate, Mitt Romney’s campaign made one thing clear: Romney’s ideas rule, not his running mate’s.
Romney put gentle but unmistakable distance between his agenda and Ryan’s hot-potato budget proposals on Sunday as the new team soaked up excitement from partisans in North Carolina and Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. But Democrats weren’t about to let them off that hook.
President Barack Obama, attending campaign fundraisers Sunday in Chicago, tagged Ryan as the “ideological leader” of the Republican Party.
“He is a decent man, he is a family man, he is an articulate spokesman for Gov. Romney’s vision but it is a vision that I fundamentally disagree with,” Obama said in his first public comments about Ryan’s selection.
Earlier, Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod deemed Ryan’s budget “the Ryan-Romney plan” and cast the new addition to the Republican ticket as a choice “meant to thrill the most strident voices in the Republican Party, but it’s one that should trouble everybody else — the middle class, seniors, students.”
Romney walked a careful line as he campaigned with Ryan by his side in North Carolina. Romney singled out Ryan’s work “to make sure we can save Medicare.” But the presidential candidate never said whether he embraced that plan himself. During the Republican primary, Romney had called Ryan’s budget a “bold and exciting effort” that was “very much needed.”
Ryan proposed to reshape the long-standing entitlement by setting up a voucher-like system to let future retirees shop for private health coverage or choose the traditional program — a plan that independent budget analysts say would probably mean smaller increases in benefits than current law would provide.
Romney and Ryan, in their first joint television interview Sunday, were clearly mindful that some of Ryan’s proposals don’t sit well with key constituencies, among them seniors in critical states like Florida and Ohio. Each man sought to reassure older voters they wouldn’t take away their benefits, with Ryan saying his mother was “a Medicare senior in Florida” and Romney vowing there would be “no changes” for seniors currently counting on the popular federal program.
“In America, the nature of this country has been giving people more freedom, more choices,” Romney said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “That’s how we make Medicare work down the road.”
Romney aides, echoing talking points they circulated to party leaders and operatives, praised Ryan’s budget work, but sought to draw a distinction between his ideas and Romney’s.
“Gov. Romney is at the top of the ticket,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters Sunday. “And Gov. Romney’s vision for the country is something that Congressman Ryan supports,”
On CNN, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie said Romney would have signed Ryan’s proposed austere budget if it landed on his desk as president. But he also emphasized that Romney would “be putting forward his own budget” if he wins the election.
Romney’s selection of Ryan has jolted the presidential contest, until now one that had done little to draw the public’s attention, and set the contours for the fall campaign: Romney as a proponent of a friendlier business climate seeking to revitalize the economy and rein in federal spending and Obama casting himself as a defender of middle-class families and federal spending on health care, retirement pensions and education.
Three months from Election Day, polls find Obama with a narrow lead over Romney, though the race remains tight in key battleground states. And while Ryan’s selection raised the role of government spending and Medicare in the election, the fundamentals of the campaign remained unchanged: a race defined by a weak economy and high unemployment, measured most recently at 8.3 percent in July.