Instead of a referendum on the incumbent, the challenger and his team have spent weeks fighting a rear-guard action against withering Democratic attacks and a growing notion among at least some voters that Romney is an out-of-touch elitist.
With the designation Saturday of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his vice presidential running mate, Romney moved more boldly than most observers expected to try to shift the debate off his personal financial past and on to America's economic future.
The former private equity investor and his advisers apparently came to believe they could no longer rely solely on voters pulling away from Obama, without offering a dramatic alternative. Instead, a Romney-Ryan ticket presents the electorate a stark choice: a Democratic incumbent who believes government intervention can and will help right the staggering economy and the Republican challengers who believe the financial system and jobs will only flower when they are set free from an overbearing central government.
The selection of the seven-term congressman, who joined the House when he was just 28, will be greeted by the GOP's conservative base with joy. Many movement conservatives had been suspicious of Romney because of his collaboration with Democrats when he was governor of Massachusetts and because of his flip-flopping on abortion, gun control and other issues. Conservatives have been lobbying for Ryan as a candidate who embodies the party's small-government mantra.
At the National Governors Association meeting last month, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin praised Ryan as an exemplar of political courage -- willing to put forward a budget that went after Medicare by proposing to replace the entitlement with a voucher program.
"One of Gov. Romney's strengths is he's not just about winning, he's about governing -- why not put in the guy who's arguably best suited to help you change things in the budget in Washington," said Walker, a conservative favorite for moving to reduce the power of public unions in his state.
Romney doubtless will enjoy the fact that his choice will flummox many pundits. They had said Romney was too cautious and calculating to pick anyone other than a couple of putative "boring white men" -- former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. Both were considered solid but uninspiring choices for the party's core members.
Bold but risky
With a measure of boldness, however, also comes more risk. The Democrats will undoubtedly suggest that Ryan and his budget frugality are far too harsh. Obama has branded Ryan's budget "thinly veiled social Darwinism." Even former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich characterized one version of Ryan's plan as "right-wing social engineering."
A liberal interest group in May put out an ad showing a Ryan lookalike pushing an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff. The spot was meant to show the impact of the congressman's Medicare plan on seniors.
In the days before sealing his choice, Romney had made it clear he was tired of defending himself. NBC's "Nightly News" on Friday aired portions of an interview with the candidate in which he even suggested he would try to call a truce with Obama on attack ads.
"Our campaign would be -- helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon -- business or family or taxes or things of that nature, that this is just diversion," Romney told NBC political director Chuck Todd.
He seemed unprepared to enter into a formal pledge on the subject; not that Obama and the Democrats would agree anytime soon to drop what have been fruitful topics -- casting doubts on Romney as a businessman and taxpayer. Now Romney has found a way to change the subject. At least for a time.
A fascinating dichotomy of the Ryan selection is that Democrats welcome the choice of the youthful lawmaker. Democrats believe Ryan will frighten off voters as too extreme, while Republican activists say America is ready for bold changes to pull it out of an economic morass. One side apparently has made a miscalculation. It won't be known until Nov. 6, election day, which one.
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