GLEN ALLEN, Va. – Mitt Romney wants running mate Paul Ryan to play it safe.
Ryan, the nation’s most controversial budget architect, is often described as the intellectual leader of the House Republican caucus. But Romney’s presidential campaign headquarters in Boston seems, for now, to prefer that the 42-year-old father of three talks about camping and milking cows instead of the fiscal proposals that made him a conservative hero.
Ryan, who wrote a plan to overhaul Medicare as chairman of the House Budget Committee, did not use the word “Medicare” with voters over the first four days as the vice presidential candidate. When he finally touched on the health care insurance program for seniors, he did so only in broad strokes after Romney himself first outlined the campaign’s talking points.
“We will not duck the tough issues,” Ryan said Friday in Virginia. “We will lead.”
But Ryan has been directed to avoid taking questions from reporters who travel with him, and to agree only to a few carefully selected interviews. He is known for sketching budget graphs on napkins to explain his ideas, but this past week it was Romney who used a white board during a news conference to help detail his own plan – one he says is virtually identical to Ryan’s.
“I’m joining the Romney ticket,” Ryan told an Ohio television station this week. “It’s not the other way around. So I’m supporting the Mitt Romney plan.”
Some of the Republican Party’s most passionate voters see it a different way. Reluctant to support Romney during the GOP primary, they favor Ryan and his ideas more than the former Massachusetts governor who will head the party’s ticket.
Romney hopes that Ryan’s conservative credentials and his boyish enthusiasm will help him solidify support from the base of his party and close the “likability gap” with President Barack Obama, who remains relatively popular in spite of the nation’s struggling economy.
Yet Romney does not want Ryan’s plans to overshadow his own candidacy. Advisers suggest that Ryan’s role will change over time. He is eager to do more, and a week after his selection became official, there are already signs that he’s beginning to play a more active role.
The congressman visited a retirement village in Florida on Saturday and emphasized that the plans he has pushed in Congress are designed to save Medicare, not end it. Introducing his mother, a Medicare recipient, to the crowd, he spoke of what the program has meant to his family and vowed “we have to keep that guarantee.”
But in taking up the issue, he did not lay out the complexities of his proposals to let future retirees choose alternatives to traditional Medicare.
Romney’s campaign managers want him to proceed with caution.
Romney’s team remembers well the problems caused by running mates who may have been trusted prematurely to play a prominent role in a presidential race – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 and Sen. Dan Quayle in 1988, among them.
The Republican presidential campaign has gone to great lengths to remind voters that Romney’s way rules.
Before Ryan first addressed Medicare in Ohio this week, large signs were placed in front of and behind the podium reading, “The Romney Plan.” After spending his first two days campaigning with Romney, Ryan will be at his side again in the week ahead for at least one campaign appearance.
The candidates, labeled as “America’s Comeback Team” in Romney’s campaign signs, are set to appear together in New Hampshire’s largest city on Monday. It is expected to be first of what may be many joint appearances in the coming days.
When they are together, the gregarious Ryan helps Romney shed his sometimes wooden ways, and they seem to draw larger crowds together than Romney does on his own.
Just don’t expect Ryan to start charting his Medicare plans on stage. His proposal to turn the guaranteed health care program for people 65 and over into a voucher-like system creates significant political challenges for the Romney-Ryan ticket – and for Republicans across the country. Many seniors don’t fully understand the proposal, and Obama’s re-election campaign is aggressively condemning the plan as something that would “end Medicare as we know it.”
That’s largely why Romney is easing Ryan into the debate. While Ryan explained his complicated plans at length during dozens of Medicare town hall-style meetings before becoming Romney’s running mate, those kinds of meetings probably are over because they’re considered too politically dangerous to continue.
Instead, Ryan is being encouraged to discuss his young children, his working-class background and his love of the outdoors as the American people get to know him.
“Let’s play stump the running mate later. Right now I want to enjoy the fair,” Ryan said when asked about Medicare at the Iowa State Fair.
“We do cow-milking contests in Wisconsin,” he continued. “I usually lose to a 17-year-old woman who grew up on a dairy farm, who’s wearing like a sash and tiara.”
Despite the cautious approach, Romney’s advisers are expecting Ryan to stumble at times early on as his record faces unprecedented scrutiny. Already, some concerns have popped up.
He reversed course on Thursday and acknowledged lobbying the government for stimulus money after twice denying he had done so. The admission came only after the release of letters, with his signature, asking for millions of the program’s dollars on behalf of two companies in his home state.
And while he has tried to avoid diving into the specifics of his Medicare plan, a reporter pushed him to explain an apparent contradiction during an impromptu lunch meeting in Ohio.
In the interview, Ryan said he never would have included a $700 billion Medicare cut in his budget if Obama hadn’t done it first.
“He put those cuts there,” Ryan said of the president. “We would never have done it in the first place.”
The defense represented a deviation from the Romney campaign’s talking points and overshadowed what was supposed to be a made-for-TV stop at local hotdog restaurant.