Mitt Romney's high-risk gamble ignites race for the White House

Paul Ryan has a plan for the US economy, but many Republicans fear it goes too far, writes Stephen Foley

Democrat politicians fanned out across the airwaves yesterday to dub Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, the most extreme Republican on a presidential ticket for generations.

The risk that Mr Romney took in appointing the young Wisconsin congressman appeared to crystallise almost immediately, as the US presidential debate shifted from the economic malaise to the long-term future of the social safety net. The race was on – 24 hours after Mr Romney unveiled his choice in the shadow of the warship USS Wisconsin – to define the new candidate.

"It is a pick that is 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," said David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's campaign strategist.

Unlike most running mates, historically, Mr Ryan comes with a fully fleshed-out plan for running the federal government over the next 10 years – the so-called "Paul Ryan budget" that passed the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives last year, but did not make it past the Democrat-controlled Senate or White House.

Among other big cuts to government spending, the budget promises to turn Medicare, the popular government-run health service, into a system of vouchers for private care.

Mr Romney and Mr Ryan campaigned together yesterday in the battleground states of North Carolina and Wisconsin, the new vice-presidential nominee's home state. "This is Day Two on our comeback tour to get America strong again, to rebuild the promise of America," Mr Romney said.

To the Romney campaign, Mr Ryan is a smart and affable family man with a penchant for thinking bold thoughts. But the Ryan budget was immediately being featured in Democrat materials emailed to the formidable list of supporters who signed on to Mr Obama's 2008 campaign, and it topped the list of talking points handed out to party elders. All the efforts circled back to one word: "extreme".

Paul Ryan is "the mastermind behind the extreme GOP budget plan", a new Democratic campaign video says. "Governor Romney has embraced many of the positions that Congressman Ryan espouses, extreme as they sound," Mr Axelrod said on CNN's State of the Nation.

Campaigners unaffiliated with the Democrats also weighed in, underscoring the risk that Mr Romney could alienate crucial independent voters. The Ryan budget has long been a controversial document – even former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called it "right-wing social engineering" – and it also roused Catholic nuns into opposition. Network, a Catholic social justice lobby group, which organised a six-state "nuns on the bus" tour last month, damned Mr Ryan's proposals as "immoral".

Sister Simone Campbell, Network's executive director, said: "His budget deliberately harms people at the economic margins. It is also unpatriotic because it says that we are an individualistic, selfish nation."

Mr Romney's listless campaign for President appeared to have been faltering in the battleground states where the White House will be won or lost in less than three months' time, as President Obama shifted the terms of the debate away from the economy. Instead, attention had turned to Mr Romney's record in the private sector, as head of the private equity group Bain Capital, and his refusal to detail his tax history.

The addition of Mr Ryan to the ticket gives the campaign the opportunity to cast Republican proposals for tax cuts for the rich as more than a giveaway to Mr Romney's friends, but as part of a coherent long-term economic reform agenda.

Picking Mr Ryan gives the Romney candidacy an intellectual definition that it had previously lacked. It has electrified the grassroots of the Republican party and many of its elite thinkers, but it also risks saddling Mr Romney with a budget plan that includes potentially unpopular elements that he has never fully endorsed.

Keeping it secret: How he got the job

Forget the political drama of Paul Ryan's pick as Mitt Romney's running-mate; the lead-up to the announcement had all the elements of a crime drama. To keep the decision secret from the press, Mr Ryan was at one point told to sneak through woods behind his house to a car and attend a meeting with Romney aides. Earlier in the week, he wore sunglasses and a baseball cap to drive from Wisconsin to a Chicago airport to catch a flight to meet Mr Romney in New England, where he was offered the job.

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