For weeks, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dangled a tantalizing question before a conservative base hungry for red meat: Who would be his vice presidential pick?
The campaign urged supporters to download an app that would reveal Romney's pick first. In-boxes filled with emails from campaign staffers, Romney's sons, and even the candidate's wife, all saying they couldn't wait to find out who Romney would choose as his running mate.
The ever-increasing hype suggested two possibilities: The campaign was trying to build up a safe choice that might not excite voters or it had a surprise up its political sleeve.
When Romney emerged Saturday morning from the USS Wisconsin at a naval yard in Norfolk, Va., the candidate sported rolled-up sleeves and a significant surprise: His pick was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The 42-year-old congressman—who had resisted calls last year to run for the presidency—strolled to the podium, introduced his wife and three children, and declared: "This is a crucial moment in the life of our nation. And it is absolutely vital that we select the right man to lead America back to prosperity and greatness."
Some pundits saw Romney's selection of the right running mate as vital to his own success in November. With polls showing the former Massachusetts governor and President Barack Obama in a dead heat—and some showing Obama slightly ahead—Romney's campaign struggled to strike a spark that would light a new fire in the campaign. Some wondered if he'd use his vice presidential pick to do it.
In many quarters, Ryan was an unexpected choice. (News outlets began reporting late Friday night that Romney would choose Ryan, but the selection had remained a closely guarded secret until then.)
As the architect of a fiscally conservative national budget that would cut trillions from federal spending, and a champion of reforms to the bleeding Medicaid and Social Security programs, Ryan represented what some pundits considered the less safe choice for Romney—a candidate who Democrats could paint as extreme.
Indeed, just moments after Ryan's speech in Norfolk, the Obama campaign called Ryan "severely conservative" and warned that he advocated "failed" economic ideas. In a Ryan primer for Obama supporters, the campaign repeatedly referred to the congressman's "extreme budget" and warned, "Like Mitt Romney, Ryan's severely conservative positions are out of touch with most Americans' values. He would take us backward on women's health and equal rights." Ryan, a Catholic, is devotedly pro-life and has opposed same-sex "marriage." (See "The quiet weapon," Edward Lee Pitts' cover story profile of Ryan from the May 22, 2010, issue of WORLD Magazine.)
In the end, Romney's choice of Ryan may offer the safety net he needs most: the security of a conservative base that may embrace him more enthusiastically than before. In a tight election that could hinge on a few states, inspiring swaths of uninspired voters may hold the key to victory for either candidate.
The challenge now: Convince conservatives that Romney embraces Ryan's economic vision, and persuade undecided voters that a fiscally conservative vision is crucial to a long-term economic recovery. Going forward, we may see Romney's message center on a key phrase in Ryan's speech in Norfolk: "We're running out of time—and we can't afford four more years of this."