TAMPA, Fla. — Mixing earnestness with youthful gumption, Rep. Paul D. Ryan introduced himself to the nation Wednesday night with a pledge to join Mitt Romney in tackling the country’s most intractable problems while setting the economy on a path to create 12 million jobs over the next four years.
“Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems. We don’t have that much time,” Ryan said in a prime-time speech that was rousingly received at the Republican National Convention. “But if we are serious and smart and we lead, we can do this.”
Addressing the largest audience of his two-decade political career just weeks after his surprise pick as Romney’s running mate, the Wisconsin congressman slipped easily into the traditional role of presidential understudy. He repeatedly vouched for the character of the man at the top of the ticket — “his whole life prepared him for this moment” — and took a hatchet to the opposition.
“They’ve run out of ideas,” Ryan said, in the broad cadences of his native Midwest. “Their moment came and went. Fear and division is all they’ve got left. With all their attacks, the president is just throwing away money.
“And,” he added, to a roar from the crowd, “he’s pretty experienced at that.”
Ryan was the night’s featured speaker in a session that broadened the Republican attack to President Obama’s defense and foreign policies and also gave voice to the frustrated Ron Paul wing of the party, with a speech by his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, that bared some of the tensions simmering just below the surface.
While Tuesday’s first convention night was devoted to broad strokes — praise for the Republican ticket, condemnation of the Democrats — Ryan began to fill in a few details of what a Romney administration would seek to accomplish.
He called for the repeal of “Obamacare” and set a job-creation goal that would far surpass the number created under Obama — though not, independent economists have said, particularly ambitious in the context of a healthy economy.
Beyond policy, Ryan spoke to one of Romney’s biggest political liabilities: a perception of pliability suggested by his changed position on abortion and other issues. “Here is our pledge,” Ryan said, as his running mate watched on TV from a nearby hotel suite. “We will not duck the tough issues. We will lead.”
Going after Obama, who inherited a deep economic hole, Ryan said: “We will not spend four years blaming others. We will take responsibility.”
Speaking to the tea party wing of the GOP, Ryan said: “We will not try to replace our founding principles. We will reapply our founding principles. The work ahead will be hard. These times demand the best of us. All of us. But we can do this.”
The speech served as the first extended look for most of the country at Ryan, 42, the boyish-appearing chairman of the House Budget Committee and a hero to conservatives. He spoke mostly in an upbeat, conversational tone, even as he repeated the apocalyptic warnings that have accompanied his detailed spending plans.
He accused Obama and Democrats of raiding Medicare to pay for the president’s healthcare plan — while not saying that he had supported the same reductions aimed at medical providers — and vowed: “A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare for my mom’s generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours.”
For all the talk of direct action, the speech was short of detail on how a Romney administration would achieve its goals. There were also some omissions.
While Ryan chided Obama for ignoring the advice of a bipartisan debt-reduction commission, he did not acknowledge opposing its recommendations himself. He also blamed Obama for the closure of a General Motors plant in his hometown, Janesville, Wis., but the move was announced under President George W. Bush.
Ryan’s call for drastic budget slashing as a way to shrink the federal government carries considerable risk, as does his proposal to turn Medicare from a guaranteed benefit into a voucher system. Ryan and Romney may be rewarded for addressing the problem of runaway entitlement spending, which politicians in both parties consider unsustainable. But spending cuts have often proved more appealing as a promise than in practice, when voters stand to lose a program or benefit they have to come to expect.
That has been especially true of Medicare, a highly popular program with senior citizens, who are a crucial part of the electorate here in Florida and other swing states.
Even before he spoke, Democrats were making the case that Republican budget plans would harm the middle class in order to benefit the well-to-do.
“The fundamental choice they make with the Romney-Ryan budget is another round of windfall tax cuts for the very wealthy — for people like Mitt Romney — at the expense of everything and everyone else,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Ryan’s Democratic counterpart on the budget committee, told reporters Wednesday at a “war room” set up blocks from the downtown Tampa convention.
Preceding Ryan were several familiar faces, who reprised a long-standing assertion: that Democrats are too weak to be entrusted with the country’s security.
Obama wins high marks from voters on defense and foreign policy, reversing a decades-long Republican advantage. He ended the war in Iraq, moved to wind down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and, in one of the administration’s highest-profile achievements, oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the decapitation of the much of Al Qaeda’s leadership.
Still, that did not stop Republicans from mounting a frontal assault on the president’s leadership.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 nominee, attacked Obama’s approach to Israel, Afghanistan, Russia and Syria and accused Obama of missing a “historic opportunity” to throw American support behind a popular uprising that could have ousted the hostile Islamic government in Iran.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, granted one of the night’s most prominent speaking slots and greeted with repeated ovations, mixed attacks on Obama with a strong defense of the interventionist foreign policy championed by Bush, her ex-boss. “There is a weariness” with the burdens of world leadership, Rice said. “I know that it feels as if we have carried these burdens long enough.”
But, she warned, if the United States does not lead, other, hostile nations will. “We do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead,” she said, “and you cannot lead from behind.”
Romney has rarely discussed foreign policy during the campaign, maintaining much of his focus on the economy. But on Wednesday he left the convention city for a quick trip to Indianapolis, where he pledged to spare the military from budget cuts and vowed to improve mental health access and education opportunities for service members and veterans.
“Where the president has failed to lead, we will protect our national defense from cuts that jeopardize critical missions,” Romney told veterans at an American Legion conference.
Left unspoken was the fact the Pentagon faces deep cuts as a result of a trigger-mechanism adopted by Congress as a way — so far unsuccessful — to force consensus on a deficit reduction deal with the Obama administration. As a member of the House, Ryan voted for the 2011 legislation.
The Obama campaign countered that the cuts could be avoided if Romney were willing to increase taxes on the wealthy.
Back at the convention, Romney got no help from Sen. Paul.
The Romney team hoped the senator’s speech would help coax followers of his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, to support the GOP standard-bearer, a rival in the primary season. But Sen. Paul mentioned Romney only once and, contradicting him, suggested defense cuts should be part of any budget-cutting plan.
“Not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent,” Paul said to cheers from a small portion of the crowd.
Staff writers Michael Finnegan in Tampa and Seema Mehta in Indianapolis contributed to this report.