Paul Ryan popped a breath mint and turned to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) as the two, squashed tight as sardines in a throng of hundreds of people, inched their way closer to a stage at the Iowa State Fair last Monday.
“So, this is where everybody speaks, right?” Ryan, clad in a red-and-white checked shirt, cheerily asked Branstad as they worked their way forward in the sweltering afternoon heat.
“Right,” the governor responded.
“And you and I are going to do that?” Ryan asked.
Moments later, Ryan took the microphone at his first solo event as the GOP vice presidential candidate — and then endured demonstrators shouting him down for the duration of his speech and two women climbing over bales of hay in an attempt to storm the stage. It became clear that breath issues would be the least of his concerns.
After Ryan’s first week in the vice presidential spotlight, it is starting to become more apparent how the Mitt Romney campaign plans to use Ryan on the campaign trail: everywhere and anywhere. The campaign seems willing to deploy the Wisconsin congressman to any battleground state, including Florida, where on Saturday he delivered an at times deeply personal address that appeared intended to quell doubts among the state’s many seniors about his proposal to overhaul Medicare.
“Our plan does not affect the benefits for people who are in or near retirement,” Ryan, who had brought his 78-year-old mother along, told the crowd at the sprawling central Florida retirement community known as the Villages. “It’s a promise that was made, and it’s a promise that must be kept.
“But in order to make sure we can guarantee that promise for my mom’s generation, for those baby boomers that are retiring every day, we must reform it for my generation.”
Ryan has visited almost every swing state in the past week: Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
In that time, there have been several unexpected developments, including Ryan’s emerging role as something other than the typical vice presidential campaign attack dog. He and Romney appear to have reversed roles in that regard.
As the two White House hopefuls went their separate ways on the trail last week, both talked about offering “solutions.”
But it’s largely fallen to Ryan to drive home that message to voters in a positive way, speaking in terms of forging a “covenant” and of “deserving victory” as he did in Oxford, Ohio, or pledging to supporters at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas that the Republican ticket is not just about opposing Obama.
“You see, we’re not going to go to people in this country and say, ‘The other guy is so bad that you have to vote for me by default,’” he told the crowd, to applause.
If there was a candidate who showed flashes of anger last week, it was Romney. Just as Ryan was addressing the Las Vegas crowd Tuesday night, Romney was several states away in Ohio, where he forcefully decried Obama’s “campaign of division and anger and hate.”
It’s also become clear during Ryan’s first week on the trail that in comparison with some of the others who were on the vice presidential shortlist, the Wisconsin congressman does not talk much about his own biography on the stump.
He tosses in anecdotes here and there about “flipping burgers at McDonald’s” as a young man or camping with his family in the Colorado Rockies, as he did in an appearance Tuesday outside Denver.
But by and large, he appears to take care not to overshadow the man at the top of the ticket, on whose life story and achievements he tends to focus more than his own. And when he does so, he makes the case — at greater length than Romney has done — that his running mate is “living proof of the example that if you have a small business, you built that small business.”
A senior Republican adviser close to the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Ryan views Romney’s career as “a case study of some of the ideas that he has been immersed in and debating about for years.”
“By his intellect and political upbringing, he is a natural champion for the success of the free-market system,” the adviser said of Ryan. “He’s a true believer in the free-market system. And so he views Governor Romney as an Exhibit A in the case for how people in the private sector can build things — build businesses, turn around businesses, take risks, put capital to work, and make a contribution to society and to the economy and to the workplace.”
But although Ryan does not dwell on his biography, his deep, personal Capitol Hill relationships have been evident at every campaign stop.
In North Carolina, he cracked a joke about a fellow House Republican from that state. “If my cheek looks red, it’s because I’ve got lipstick from Virginia Foxx all over it.”
In Ohio, he noted of Gov. John Kasich (R), “I served as his protege on the Budget Committee.”
At Deep Run High School in Virginia, he mentioned the House majority leader, a close ally on Capitol Hill. “My buddy, Eric Cantor, I think his kids went to high school here.”
When it comes to retail politicking, Ryan tends to ask voters their names and introduces himself simply as Paul. Upon hearing a supporter’s job or home town, he often responds with a “Very cool!”
At a Las Vegas campaign event, a man threw him a baseball to sign; Ryan caught it one-handed, signed it and handed it back. When a woman in Iowa told him her name was Tootsie, Ryan responded: “Like Tootsie Roll!”
Ryan’s style on the stump has similarly energized supporters. In Glen Allen, Va., on Friday, Ryan told the crowd that in a second term, Obama would bring about “more taxes, more spending.”
“And more teleprompters!” yelled a man at the front of the gymnasium.
Ryan didn’t skip a beat. “And more teleprompters,” he said to boisterous cheers.