By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - With Republican Mitt Romney on the verge of choosing a vice presidential running mate, conservatives have mounted a concerted campaign to boost the chances of Representative Paul Ryan, the architect of his party's controversial budget-cutting plan.
Often likening Ryan to Ronald Reagan, conservatives say the Wisconsin lawmaker's supposed drawbacks as a candidate - mostly stemming from the steep cuts in social safety net programs he has proposed - are actually strengths that could bring heft, content and perhaps a spark to Romney's campaign.
Romney, in an interview Thursday with NBC News, gave no indication who he might pick, but outlined what he was looking for in a running mate.
"I certainly expect to have a person that has a strength of character, a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country," he said.
Despite the nation's economic problems, Romney trails President Barack Obama in most polls three months from the November 6 election, and may even be losing momentum. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week gave Obama a 7-point lead (49 to Romney's 42 percent), up slightly from a month ago.
Particularly enthusiastic backers of Ryan are opinion writers for the East Coast's leading conservative publications - like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review and the Weekly Standard. As if on cue, many of them weighed in this week in support of Ryan, almost daring Romney to pick him instead of more conventional short-listers, such as former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.
The case against Ryan, 42, is that he is a lightning rod for criticism of the unpopular cuts in government health programs for the elderly and poor he proposed as chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Budget Committee
That is not a weakness, the conservatives argued, but a strength. They want Ryan's budget to be the issue and they want Ryan there to defend it.
Such a debate, they believe, could elevate the campaign beyond questions that are consuming it now, about Romney's unwillingness to disclose more than two years of tax returns for example, or his leadership of the investment firm, Bain Capital.
"Mr. Obama and the Democrats want to make this a small election over small things - Mitt's taxes, his wealth, Bain Capital," the Wall Street Journal editorialized Thursday as it pushed a Ryan choice.
"To win, Mr. Romney and the Republicans have to rise above those smaller issues and cast the choice as one about the overall direction and future of the country."
"Ryan is an ideologue in the best sense of the term," the National Review's Rich Lowry wrote in Politico. "He is motivated by ideas and knows what he believes and why. But he's not blinkered. He is an explainer and a persuader."
Romney has a choice to make - go with the tried and true, Portman or Pawlenty, or take a bit of a risk with Ryan, or look elsewhere. Many expect him to announce his choice soon, possibly as early as next week when he winds up a campaign trip in Portman's Ohio.
DEMOCRATS WELCOME RYAN
The risk of Ryan becomes apparent from talking with Democrats on Capitol Hill. While lawmakers and congressional aides from both parties use words like "smart," "telegenic," "young" and "exciting" to describe Ryan, Democrats seem him as a dream choice for different reasons.
"I would love for Romney to pick him," said one Democratic leadership aide. "It would crystallize everything for us. Just to have him on the ticket would even further elevate the Ryan budget."
That budget, which has been embraced by Romney, would reform the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly and disabled in a way that Democrats say would shift significant costs to those recipients. It also would cut deeply into other popular domestic programs, including education and the joint federal-state Medicaid healthcare program for the poor.
Another Democratic aide in Congress said if Ryan was the pick, "We could really with no effort wrap the Ryan budget around Romney." The aide added, "If he's not on the ticket we have to spend energy reminding folks" that Romney said he was in favor of Ryan's controversial budget.
Some Capitol Hill Republicans who support Ryan's proposals worry that the Democrats may be right about Ryan's impact.
"There is the practical political question as to whether or not we can truly win by being so blunt about the kind of changes most Republicans think have to be made to programs like Medicare," said a Republican aide who asked not to be named.
"It turns the election into an all-in bet," the aide said, adding, "The concern is that when you go all in, you can lose and be out of the game."
There's another concern as well: Ryan is the ultimate Washington insider in an anti-Washington era. He began his career in Congress as a congressional aide and has been in and around the Capitol most of the time since.
This week's editorials seemed in part designed to give Romney the courage to defy the conventional assessment of Ryan.
"That the hyper-cautious Romney is seriously considering him counts as one of the biggest surprises of a campaign almost entirely lacking in them. Picking Ryan would represent a Romney revolt against conventional wisdom. And appropriately so - since the conventional wisdom is wrong," National Review's Lowry wrote.
In the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and Stephen Hayes argued that the party "will be running on the Romney-Ryan plan no matter what. Having Paul Ryan on the ticket may well make it easier to defend the plan convincingly."
CLOSE TIES TO PAWLENTY
Will the pressure on Romney over his vice presidential choice matter in the end? Probably not, said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a Republican political analyst.
"None of it matters - the only criteria should be whether the pick can become president and whether the relationship between Romney and his selection is strong."
If Romney were to pick the one person from among his short list with whom he has the closest ties, it would be Pawlenty, who quickly endorsed Romney after dropping out of his own race for the Republican presidential nomination last year.
Pawlenty, well-liked within the Romney campaign, has been an active campaign stand-in for Romney and was stumping for him in Michigan on Thursday.
Pawlenty is popular among evangelical conservatives whose active support Romney will need. Yet many analysts cite the fact that he failed to generate much excitement for his own candidacy as a strike against naming him as the No. 2. In 2008, he was passed over by then-nominee John McCain for the vice presidency.
"We'll know soon enough," Pawlenty told a crowd in Jackson, Michigan, on Wednesday, according to ABC News. Romney, he said, has a rich pool of conservative talent from which to choose and as a result he "can't make a bad pick."
If there is a tortoise in the race, it could be Portman, a brainy former White House budget director and former U.S. trade representative.
Many in Washington think he is the odds-on favorite despite misgivings about his ties to the George W. Bush White House. Picking him could help turn the tide for Romney in Ohio, a state he desperately needs to win and where he now trails Obama.
There is a long list of candidates beside Ryan, Pawlenty and Portman for his vice presidential running mate, whose most critical task will be to go head-to-head in a debate against sitting Vice President Joe Biden in October.
Among them are Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnnell.
The campaign has made it clear that an announcement could come soon, but has been coy on exactly when, a strategy that keeps interest in the decision high. Many believe Romney will announce the pick next week when the Olympics are over and after a four-state bus tour that starts in Virginia on Saturday and ends Tuesday in Ohio.
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Jackie Frank)