Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney discarded his increasingly inert better-safe-than-sorry campaign strategy Saturday when he named budget hawk and Democratic bete noire Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate.
The decision to go with Ryan, 42, the conservative architect of recent GOP budget proposals that would slash federal spending and remake entitlement programs like Medicare (though not cut the deficit for decades) delighted conservatives who had begun loudly and publicly grousing about the trajectory of Romney's campaign, and who had long been suspect of Romney's conservative bona fides.
It also brought aboard a young, culturally conservative Catholic from a battleground state that for the past two years has been ground zero in the war over the size of government, the role of public unions and the future of entitlement programs.
"Ryan is a good choice and a clear attempt to add some policy heft to the Romney ticket," Matt Kibbe, president of the national Tea Party organization FreedomWorks, told NPR. "It will force both candidates to have a more serious debate about the right path to economic recovery."
How the choice of Ryan, the seven-term Wisconsin congressman whose budget proposals have become manifestos of the small-government movement, may affect Romney's fortunes in key swing states like Colorado, Ohio and Virginia is less clear.
But the pick has handed Democrats a trove of material mined from Ryan's budget-cutting proposals, including a scenario to convert Medicare into a block grant program that they already are leveraging in an effort to weaken the GOP ticket's appeal among independent voters, women and senior citizens, including in must-win states like Florida.
Here's a sample of the fight to come, now that Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is on the ticket: "If there were ever any doubt that Mitt Romney is not on the side of working people, today's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate makes it crystal clear," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement.
Ryan's "no-holds barred record of attacking seniors, children, and working men and women is frightening for the 99 percent of Americans who are not rich," Henry says.
Jim Messina, Obama for America campaign manager, characterized Ryan as "the architect of the radical House budget" who supports "new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy."
The battle, however, is one that conservatives like longtime strategist Ed Rogers say they are ready for.
The Ryan pick, he says, suggests that "Romney will fight from a conservative point of view. It means Romney gets it."
"America is in trouble," Rogers says. "We must be honest."
Reeling from a summer of sliding approval ratings and an expensive and ugly advertising war with President Obama, Romney bypassed potential, and far less controversial, running mates in former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, touted for his "regular guy" appeal, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, viewed as Oval Office ready and with potential to help the ticket in a key Buckeye State county.
Though his pick was hailed by some Tea Party movement leaders, Ryan embodies a number of qualities the movement does not embrace: He's spent his entire career in or around Congress, he voted for the auto maker loans, and for the Wall Street bailout.
The effect of vice presidential candidates on the fortunes of the top-of-the-ticket nominee most often proves negligible. But the addition of Ryan to the mix focuses the campaign on the future of Medicare and Social Security (Ryan has favored its privatization), as well as his views on women's health issues and the size of government.
Romney, while exciting his base with Ryan, faces the twin prospect of losing ground with important constituencies in swing states — constituencies, in particular women, he's already been struggling to corral.
An Obama ad campaign on the air in swing states, including Iowa, has already been hitting Romney for being out of touch with women. Abortion rights advocates, like Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America, have begun defining Ryan's congressional record on abortion as "extreme."
"He has cast 59 votes on reproductive rights while in Congress and not one has been pro-choice," Keenan said, adding that he has supported efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
Romney, in picking a young and controversial star of the conservative right, has gambled that Republicans who may have been inclined to stay home in November will now vote — and vote in numbers that will more than offset the votes he may lose by picking a young and controversial star of the conservative right.