TAMPA — Representative Paul Ryan bounded before the Republican National Convention Wednesday and accepted his party’s nomination for vice president, introducing himself to America in the most consequential speech of his career and taking direct aim at President Obama’s leadership.
The 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman — the youngest vice presidential candidate in 24 years, and the first from the post-baby-boomer generation — called for changes he believes will put federal programs on sounder footing for future generations. In a forceful speech that roused the gathered delegates, he wholly embraced his expanding role as the Republican ticket’s attack dog.
“I’m the newcomer to the campaign, so let me share a first impression: I have never seen opponents so silent about their record, and so desperate to keep their power,” Ryan said. “They’ve run out of ideas. Their moment came and went. Fear and division are all they’ve got left.”
The speech before a prime-time national television audience offered Ryan, the House budget chairman, a prominent platform to declare the ticket’s intention to cut the deficit; alter one of the most cherished entitlement programs, Medicare; and provide an opportunity to solidify his reputation as his party’s intellectual lodestar.
“I accept the calling of my generation to give our children the America that was given to us, with opportunity for the young and security for the old – and I know that we are ready,” Ryan said, while refraining from getting into many policy specifics. “Our nominee is sure ready. His whole life has prepared him for this moment.”
He also spoke of his former high school classmates and their struggles finding a job. “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life,” Ryan said. “If you’re feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.”
On a more personal level, Ryan detailed a life story that touched on struggles (his father died when he was 16) and triumph (he won his congressional seat at age 28).
Ryan said he hoped his father would have been proud of him and, triggering a loud ovation, singled out his mother in the convention audience, heralding the example she set for him.
“To this day, my mom is my role model,” he declared.
Ryan also noted his own relative youth: “We’re a full generation apart, Governor Romney and I. And, in some ways, we’re a little different,” he said. “My playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin.”
And he directly addressed Romney’s Mormon faith. “Mitt and I also go to different churches,” said Ryan, who is Catholic. “But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example. And I’ve been watching that example. The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable.”
Ryan’s address was the marquee event on the second full day of the Republican National Convention here, which has been cut short and at times overshadowed by a hurricane that began to strike New Orleans on Wednesday.
Hurricane Isaac slowed to a tropical storm after it moved onshore in Louisiana, dumping heavy rains and causing widespread flooding along the Gulf Coast but failing to breach the massive defenses built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city seven years ago.
Ryan’s speech capped the end of a night where a string of prominent speakers — including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain — lit into Obama for his handling of the economy, his lack of private sector experience, and his signature health care law.
“I had hopes once of addressing you under different circumstances,” McCain said. “But our fellow Americans had different plans four years ago, and I accept their decision.”
Rice was showered with some of the largest ovations of the night in an optimistic speech that managed to critique Obama’s policies without once mentioning his name – and will almost certainly raise speculation about her political future.
The crowd rose to its feet as she spoke in vivid terms of being raised in the segregated South and rising to become secretary of state.
“A little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham, the segregated city of the South where her parents cannot take her to a movie theater or to restaurants,” Rice said. “But they are convinced that even if she cannot have a hamburger at Woolworths, she can be the president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she becomes the secretary of state.”
The convention also featured a video of two men not present at the convention — the previous two Republican presidents:George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush.
“There no question in my mind that Mitt Romney will be a great president,” George W. Bush said in the video, his strongest endorsement of Romney to date.
But the focus of the day was on Ryan, who has had a rapid rise to national prominence, going in 14 years from a 28-year-old congressional candidate to the vice presidential nominee of his party.
Beloved by his party for his ability to deliver a political punch with a smile, Ryan ratcheted up his criticism of Obama.
“It all started off with stirring speeches, Greek columns, the thrill of something new,” Ryan said. “Now all that’s left is a presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed, like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.”
About 10 minutes into his speech, a woman rose from her seat, hoisted a pink sign and began shouting, “My body, my choice!” Ryan stopped his speech and the crowd began trying to drown her out, shouting “USA! USA!” as she was escorted out of the convention hall.
Romney’s decision to choose Ryan has been seen as a gamble because it has branded his campaign with ideas about overhauling the tax code and confronting controversial issues, such as changes to programs such as Medicare. Those proposals have been attacked by the Democrats and have complicated Romney’s standing in states such as Florida and Nevada, which have large populations of senior citizens.
Ryan alluded to those proposals in his speech Wednesday — casting himself as willing to confront the hard truths — but he didn’t dwell upon them.
“Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation’s economic problems,” he said. “And I’m going to level with you: We don’t have that much time. But if we are serious, and smart, and we lead, we can do this.”
The Wisconsin delegation had a prominent place in the front rows of the convention hall, and delegates — at least one of whom was wearing a cheesehead — sat with a mixture of excitement and disbelief that their native son was being crowned the candidate for vice president. “I’ve been supporting Paul Ryan ever since his very first congressional race 14 years ago,” said Linda Prehn, 58, a cranberry farmer and delegate from Wausau, Wis., who became politically active only two years ago in opposition to the federal stimulus package.
Her support for Ryan dates to 1998, when she read that Ryan had been a counselor at Camp Manitowish, which her children also attended.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the veteran of a battle against his state’s public employee unions, stood throughout the speech and applauded dozens of times as Ryan called repeatedly for smaller, limited government. The governor’s eyes welled with tears when Ryan thanked his mother for her inspiration and support.
After the speech, Walker whooped and pointed toward Ryan from the front rows of the loud, beaming Wisconsin delegation.
On the eve of his speech here accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Romney went to Indianapolis for a speech at the American Legion where he accused Obama of backing $1 trillion in “reckless defense cuts.” He pledged to avert the cuts, and find other areas in the budget to find savings. Romney quickly returned to Tampa late on Wednesday, watched the speeches from his nearby Marriott hotel room, and began preparing for his speech Thursday. It will be the crowning moment for the man who has used the past six years to try to win the Republican nomination.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.