By Dana MIlbank
Paul Ryan was on his soapbox — and he couldn’t get off fast enough.
The lanky lawmaker from Wisconsin made his first solo appearance as Mitt Romney’s running mate on Monday, and the Romney campaign chose to have him do it from the Iowa State Fair. This was a mistake.
Ryan spoke from what fairgoers call the soapbox — a small platform where any citizen, even a politician, can have 20 minutes to voice his or her mind. But because of the open venue, the crowd of 3,000 people could not be cleansed of Democrats, indifferent Iowans and other undesirable elements.
Ryan, in a trying-too-hard outfit of blue jeans, wide leather belt and red-and-white checked shirt, began with a painful effort to establish common ground with the locals.
“What a beautiful day to be at the state fair,” he said. “We have fairs. Do you have Wristband Day here?”
Apparently Iowans do not have Wristband Day, because the crowd was quiet.
“That’s the favorite day for my kids, because Wristband Day, you can buy a wristband and ride all the rides with just one wristband for the whole day.”
The Iowans stood like corn stalks on a still morning.
“So it’s just a suggestion from a Wisconsinite to a neighboring Iowan: Have Wristband Day, all right. Your kids will love it.”
If there were crickets at the Iowa State Fair, you would have heard them chirping.
Just about then, some in the crowd suddenly came to life. Unfortunately for the candidate, they were hecklers, and they were charging the stage.
“I heard that President Obama is starting his bus tour today, and I heard he wasn’t going to come to the Iowa State Fair,” Ryan attempted, but the protesters were shouting slogans — “Are you going to cut Medicare?” “Stop the war on the poor!” “Hands off Social Security!” — too loud for him to deliver the punch line.
“I think it’s because — so — ha! You know what? It’s funny,” Ryan continued, although he did not at the moment appear to be having fun. “It’s funny, because Iowans and Wisconsinites, we like to be respectful of one another and peaceful with one another and listen to each other.”
His listeners did not see the humor. They were shouting “USA! USA!” and “Romney! Romney!” to drown out the hecklers. Ryan noticed a portly woman in a salmon T-shirt storming the stage just a few feet from him. “You guys see this one here?” he called to security agents. He took a step back as police and security guards swarmed the stage, hauling off the interloper.
Ryan didn’t get his 20 minutes on the soapbox. He proceeded through the mayhem for about 12, but even Fox News Channel pulled away from its coverage as a wrestling match between protesters and Romney supporters blocked the camera shot.
It was not exactly the kickoff Ryan and Romney wanted, but it did help to establish why Romney chose the young House Budget Committee chairman as his running mate: Ryan is almost as awkward as Romney.
Ryan has a deft touch in Washington when he speaks at think tanks or mixes it up with reporters. He has an easy manner and a confident command of policy. But he hasn’t been tested much as a retail politician. He hasn’t had to win over voters much beyond Racine and Kenosha.
His speech, stitched together with connectors such as “one more thing” and “another thing,” was not quite polished. After the first wave of hecklers and stage crashers was cleared, Ryan went through his agenda for economic growth, mixing his beloved statistics (“Ninety-seven percent of the world’s consumers are out of this country”) with his trademark gloom (We’re “spending our children into a diminished future”) and a strained effort to portray himself as a local. “We need to grow and make things in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, the Midwest,” he said.
But the only thing being made at that moment was noise. By then, Ryan was trying to out-shout the protesters, who were vociferously demanding that he “stop the war on the middle class.” Just in front of the cameras, a man with gray hair and a beard shook his fist, shouting at Ryan as Romney supporters covered him in Romney signs and tried to pull him down. A Romney sign flew through the air, and a policeman joined the ruckus, shouting and pointing. Feedback squealed from the sound system. “We’re used to this in Wisconsin,” Ryan claimed.
But only on Wristband Day.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.