MANASSAS, Va. — U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan spent his first day as the likely Republican vice presidential candidate in this key political state, pledging to help running mate Mitt Romney “restore the greatness of this country.”
Hours after Romney announced his choice of the conservative Wisconsin congressman, several thousand people joined them at a Saturday afternoon rally in Manassas’ historic district.
“Guess what? On Nov. 6 we are going to take this country back,” said Ryan, 42, as the crowd furiously waved a sea of miniature American flags.
The seven-term congressman, known for confronting President Obama’s fiscal policies, evoked Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” theme in his speech.
“Somewhere out there on the horizon is that dream that you have for yourself and your children,” Ryan said. “It’s getting further away from us because of President Barack Obama’s policies.
“But we don’t have to put up with that. We can take our country back.”
Hours earlier, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and presumptive GOP presidential nominee, introduced Ryan to cheering supporters in Norfolk.
They used the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned Navy battleship and floating museum, as a backdrop in honor of Ryan’s home state.
“We don’t want America to become Europe. We want to restore the principles that made America the hope of the earth,” said Romney, 65.
“We will restore the greatness of this country,” Ryan told the crowd.
Here in Manassas, supporters and the curious began gathering in late morning, five hours before the rally, and eventually wrapped twice around a city block.
The campaign stop was held just four miles from a national park dedicated to two key Civil War battles – First and Second Bull Runs, fought in July 1861 and August 1862.
Leading GOP voice
“This is a step of strength for Romney,” Republican strategist Bruce Haynes said of Ryan’s selection. “The narrative that Romney is overly cautious and unwilling to make a bold move is out the window.”
The Obama campaign dismissed the choice, saying Ryan shares Romney’s “commitment to the flawed theory (of) new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy.”
Elected to Congress in 1998, Ryan is the leading Republican voice on fiscal policy.
He chairs the influential House Budget Committee and is a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes federal tax, Social Security, health care and trade legislation.
He delivered the Republican rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011 and wrote the GOP’s 2012 budget proposal, which passed the House but died in the Senate.
Many in the crowd said they were thrilled by Ryan’s selection.
“What a superb choice,” said Michael Martin of Great Falls, Va., an economist retired from the International Monetary Fund.
His wife, Graciela, said she will be voting for the first time in this presidential election.
“I am now proudly a U.S. citizen,” the Colombia native said. “I had my fingers crossed for Ryan.”
Armando Torres, 53, a Democrat from nearby Bristow, Va., said a Romney victory in November is “paramount to the success of our country.”
Torres said the past four years have devastated small businessman such as himself.
“It’s gotten to the point where I am not bringing in enough to make payroll, which means I am either laying people off or borrowing money,” he said.
His wife, Kim, 53, was surprised by Ryan’s selection but believes “it shows Romney is serious about (getting) the country back on track.”
Ryan continued a daylong theme here, attacking what he termed Obama’s “record of failure,” including growing unemployment and national debt.
He recalled advice from his father, who died when Ryan was a teenager: “He’d say, ‘Son, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ Well, regrettably, President Obama has become part of the problem — and Mitt Romney is the solution.”
Romney said Ryan matured quickly after his father’s death and “learned leadership young.”
“But he didn’t go to Washington to be something big, he went there to do something big, and that includes stopping the spending we don’t have,” Romney declared.
National Democrats dismissed Romney’s choice.
“For the second time in a row, Republicans have chosen an anchor as a VP candidate,” said Dane Strother, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “The decision voters will make is whether to cut Medicare in order to give the richest 1 percent another tax cut.
“It’s a ‘Hail Mary’ pass —– and Romney’s no Doug Flutie.”
Some political analysts consider Ryan a risky choice because of his leading role in efforts to restructure entitlement spending to sustain Medicare and Social Security benefits, said GOP strategist Haynes.
“Others will see this as a statement that Romney is willing to lead and to take on tough problems, do the difficult things that our fiscal situation requires,” he said.
Lara Brown, a Villanova University political science professor, called Romney’s choice a “courageous” one that will appeal to conservatives.
“He’s signaling to the country (that) he cares about America’s fiscal future and that he intends to focus on these issues if he were elected,” Brown said. “He’s also attempting to unite the Republican Party by choosing a vice president who’s as concerned about the nation’s finances as Ron Paul’s supporters and ‘Tea Party’ adherents.”
Pennsylvania GOP leaders and the Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Tea Party hailed the selection.
“Pennsylvanians will be well served by a Romney-Ryan team in the White House that can finally shut the door on President Obama’s four years of high unemployment, out-of-control spending, and usher in a new era of American prosperity,” said state GOP chairman Rob Gleason.
Five days before Wisconsin’s contentious April presidential primary, Ryan endorsed Romney over GOP rival Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s conservative former U.S. senator. His backing helped Romney win there, according to analysts.
Ryan’s largely Roman Catholic, blue-collar congressional district in Southeastern Wisconsin has voted Republican only once in six presidential elections.
Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University religion and politics expert, predicts that a “fair share of progressive Catholics will be displeased” with Ryan’s selection, because of concerns that his 2012 budget proposal would have cut federal programs too deeply.
“Overall, it is likely that the pick will do more to sway independent voters who care about addressing the situation of the nation’s economy and debt than by courting religious voters as a whole,” she said.
Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University of Ohio, described Ryan as a wild-card choice: “He is young, charismatic, incredibly popular, not just with the base but also with the Tea Party.”
He said Ryan’s conservative credentials could help Romney — but also hurt him with voters alarmed by his fiscal austerity and budget-cutting efforts.
“What you don’t want from your VP pick is for the pick to have more media attention than the nominee — and you get that with Paul Ryan,” Kelley said.
Impact with seniors
Ryan’s federal budget proposal for fiscal 2013 would have cut all discretionary spending, from 12.5 percent of the gross domestic product in 2011 to just 3.75 percent.
Critics called that goal unrealistic because it included drastic reductions in defense spending.
In May, Ryan voted for a bill to increase spending on the war in Afghanistan and for weapon systems to $642 billion, or $8 billion more than what Obama and Congress agreed to last year.
Democrats have hammered Ryan for his plan to reduce Medicare costs through partial privatization. Now they likely will focus on convincing older Americans that he would jeopardize their health care coverage.
Because of that, Ryan’s selection is “an even bolder pick than most people realize, because (Romney) just gave Florida to Obama,” said Steve McMahon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, referring to the Sunshine State’s high number of elderly voters.
Yet one Manassas senior citizen attending Saturday’s rally disagreed.
“I love Paul Ryan,” said Anna Marie Delgonzo, because he and Romney are “serious about fixing our debt, about taking on entitlements.”