By Samuel P. Jacobs
VANDALIA, Ohio (Reuters) - Trailing in the must-win state of Ohio, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney asked his running mate Paul Ryan to meet him here this week.
After 24 days apart, Romney and Ryan reunited on an airport tarmac on Tuesday amid grumbling from some Republicans that the campaign has grown complacent, leaving Ryan, its strongest advocate, off the national stage.
"Wow, that's quite a guy, Paul Ryan," Romney shouted to the crowd. "Isn't that something?"
Romney's many conservative critics share that assessment.
Weeks ahead of the November 6 general election, Romney is trying to lash his fortunes to the energetic congressman, admired by Republicans for his financial mastery and straight talk.
Those efforts could prove too little, too late. On the trail, Ryan has become an enthusiastic champion for Romney, deploying charts and populist charm. But the man at the bottom of the ticket is not lifting the one at the top.
With early voting underway in 30 states, Romney is struggling with dropping polls, the release of a secretly recorded video in which he condemned nearly half of Americans as dependents on government who view themselves as victims, and a shifting foreign policy landscape that does not play to his strengths as an economic Mr. Fix-It.
Against those odds, Ryan is traveling through Ohio and other politically divided "swing" states that will largely decide the election, lauding Romney's credentials and mocking his opponent, Democratic President Barack Obama.
During the past week, Ryan's argument has taken a new shape, as the campaign has used the U.S. House Budget Committee chairman to rebut the widely held notion - even among Republicans - that Romney has run a vague campaign, unburdened by details.
Last Saturday Ryan delivered a PowerPoint presentation on rising government deficits and U.S. debt obligations, the focus of his stump speech.
During his classroom-style lectures, Ryan returns to the same pose, placing his left hand on his hip, raising his prominent brow, and biting his lower lip, as if to say of Obama's handling of the economy, "Can you believe this guy?"
Ryan's description of budget horrors and debt nightmares is intended to leave crowds believing that he is a teller of hard truths, a break from Romney's reputation as a waffler.
"It's not what you want to hear. It's the truth," said Ken Warner, 50, a software engineer from South Dayton, Ohio, after hearing Ryan speak on Tuesday.
FIGHTING THE DWEEB FACTOR
Ryan, 42, is seen as a natural campaigner and savvy populist, with an average-guy demeanor that Romney has never worn well.
During the Republican primary campaign, Romney memorably serenaded a crowd at a retirement community with a rendition of "America the Beautiful," which later became the soundtrack of a derisive ad by the Obama campaign.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Wednesday, Ryan appeared after country crooner Lee Greenwood sang to the crowd.
"You know, I thought I wouldn't give a speech. I'm just going to sing. You OK with that? Just kidding. I would lose every vote here if I tried that," he said.
Ryan is quick on his feet. Romney often is not.
As a woman recovered from a fainting spell at a rally in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Wednesday, Ryan seized the moment to attack Obama's healthcare policies.
"Good thing she has a good healthcare system to go to, if she needs it today," he said.
The campaign is eager to play up Ryan's hunting background, fighting off any whiff that a man so enthusiastic about PowerPoint slides is a dweeb.
On Tuesday Ryan made an arranged visit to a Bass Pro Shop in a suburb of Cincinnati, purchasing hunting gear for his 10-year-old daughter.
As Ryan walked past camouflage jackets and toward a display of crossbows, Ryan asked reporters, "Is this your first time in archery, guys?"
There is little that Ryan's team can do to correct Romney's performance on the campaign trail.
Vice presidential nominees have little impact on the decisions made at headquarters, said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who traveled in 1996 with Jack Kemp, the last Republican vice presidential candidate to run against a Democratic incumbent.
"You're really not there," Carney said. "You don't have a chance to participate that much."
A Ryan campaign aide disputed that characterization, saying, "There's constant communication between the folks on Paul Ryan's plane, the folks on the governor's plane, and the folks in Boston," where the Romney campaign is based.
"Paul Ryan talks to the governor most every day, senior campaign officials every day. It is one campaign."
As to whether there's frustration in the Ryan camp about the state of the Romney campaign, the aide said, "The name on the top of the ticket is Governor Romney. That's just the way it is."
'RUB OFF ON MITT'
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week, Ryan appears to have had little influence on the presidential race.
Among political independents, the sliver of voters who could sway the election, 18 percent felt more favorable toward the Republican ticket and 13 percent felt less so.
These numbers provide ammunition for Republicans who think Romney isn't using Ryan well.
Speaking to a radio host last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said, "They not only need to use him out on the trail more effectively. They need to have more of him to rub off on Mitt."
The campaign's turn to foreign policy hasn't benefited Ryan either. He jokes at nearly each stop that because he lives in Wisconsin, which borders Lake Superior, Canada is what comes to mind when he thinks "overseas."
Aides say Ryan is having an impact. They point to splashy headlines like the one that ran this week in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, as evidence that he is generating positive coverage where he campaigns.
But Ryan's soft polling numbers undermine the claim that he was such a bold pick from the start, the kind that would alter the course of the election.
Despite Ryan's prominence in Washington, where he has spent the last two decades, there are plenty of places where he is not a household name.
"I had never heard of him before," said Kay Mahaffey, a retired nurse, at Ryan's recent stop in Lima, Ohio.
Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, the campaign ensures that Ryan will no longer go quite so unrecognized outside of Washington.
"He'll be one of the new big leaders in the party," said Scott Pucket, 42, a Colorado State Patrol trooper, who heard Ryan speak in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Wednesday. "Whatever happens."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Fred Barbash and Xavier Briand)