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Ryan's rise

Politics | On the national stage, the Republican vice presidential nominee moves from policy wonk to attack dog

TAMPA, Fla.-During his seven terms in Congress, Paul Ryan has had a few moments on the main stage of the nation's political discourse. His budget plans have garnered the attention of the chattering class of pundits, lawmakers, and lobbyists that dominate politics inside the Washington Beltway. The representative from Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District even faced off one-on-one with President Barack Obama during a bipartisan White House healthcare summit in February 2010, where he delivered a six-minute-long monologue describing how the Democrat's healthcare plan raids nearly a trillion dollars out of Medicare. But that aired on C-SPAN on a weekday afternoon.

That all changed Wednesday night when an alphabet soup of television networks from across the nation and around the globe turned their cameras toward Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate.

Facing his largest audience yet during a primetime address inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Ryan pledged that a Romney-Ryan administration would strengthen and protect Medicare. But Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, offered few specifics about his plan to reform entitlement programs by allowing some seniors to use Medicare benefits to buy private insurance.

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Instead, Ryan traded his normal policy wonk persona for an attack dog attitude and served the delegates at the convention hall what they wanted: red meat.

"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 declared as the delegates jumped to their feet and roared.

Ryan said it was time for Obama to stop blaming the previous administration for the country's problems and to start addressing the nation's job crisis. He argued that the only thing the president's $831 billion economic stimulus package added was more than $5 trillion in new debt. Ryan described how Obama's healthcare law brings in more than 2,000 pages of rules, mandates, and taxes.

"These past four years we have had no shortage of words in the White House. What's missing is leadership in the White House," he said. "Without a change in leadership why would the next four years be any different from the last four years?"

Ryan described how he never thought of himself as "stuck in some station in life" during his early jobs waiting tables, washing dishes, and mowing lawns.

"I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself," he said. "That's what we do in this country … that's freedom, and I'll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners."

When Mitt Romney announced his selection of Ryan as his running mate in early August, many conservatives cheered the choice because of the congressman's insistence that the nation needs to tackle its exploding entitlement programs. But Democrats pounced, depicting Ryan as a politician bent on taking away benefits from the elderly.

Talking about entitlement reform to a national audience would have been political suicide at any convention since the 1960s. But Romney, in making his choice of Ryan, is banking on the belief that American voters, fearful of the country's fiscal future, are ready to have an adult conversation about Medicare.

"I'm going to level with you: We don't have that much time," Ryan said of the need to curtail government spending. "But if we are serious, and smart, and we lead, we can do this."

Ryan also used his address to offer some humor and personal touches to show the country that he is not some fiscal boogeyman. He said his role model has been his mom, who started her own business after Ryan's father died when Ryan was just 16. He talked about his preference for rock bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, and he teased Romney for preferring music that can be heard in "hotel elevators."

Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said Ryan's new platform as the vice presidential nominee allows more Americans to scrutinize Ryan's budget ideas.

"It was very difficult for Ryan to get his message out," Barletta said. "But getting on the ticket has elevated his plan and shows voters that Republicans are serious about solving the nation's economic problems."

Ryan's acceptance speech will be compared to the one delivered four years ago by his immediate GOP vice presidential predecessor, Sarah Palin, who used an assured and folksy delivery to send a much-needed jolt through the 2008 Republican National Convention. But it could be argued that her moment inside the convention hall in St. Paul, Minn., four years ago marked Palin's highpoint of the 2008 election.

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