By Niall Stanage - 08/18/12 10:00 AM EDT
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has had a broadly successful first week as the Republican vice presidential candidate, according to strategists affiliated with both parties.
He also got an unexpected assist from his opposite number, Vice President Biden, who muscled into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons with his comment to a racially mixed audience in Virginia that the GOP would “put y’all back in chains.”
Among Republicans, the mood is one of excitement mixed with relief on Ryan — and glee at Biden’s misstep.
They believe that their side's presidential campaign has done all it can to claim the initiative on the Medicare issue, suffering little damage in the opening fusillades of the air war.
More broadly, they assert that Ryan has brought an energy to the campaign that was lacking while Romney was out on the trail alone.
“I think he has exceeded the expectations that most us had,” veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins told The Hill.
Rollins admitted that he was initially “not convinced” of the merits of choosing Ryan and saw more electoral-college upside in tapping a GOP swing-state senator like Marco Rubio of Florida or Rob Portman of Ohio. He was far from the only one.
Democrats still believe the Romney-Ryan ticket will be weighed down by matters of substance — specifically, Ryan’s proposals for reshaping Medicare, which Romney has all but endorsed.
Yet when it comes to style, Democrats credit Ryan with a basic level of competence, noting his avoidance of the pratfalls and embarrassments that have harmed past veep choices like Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin.
Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, said of Ryan: “I don’t think he’s done badly in terms of the mechanics of being a candidate. He’s a little uneven but he is a decent performer.”
Simmons also said that Biden’s gaffe was “not helpful,” although he stressed that the vice president often “provokes some chatter” and claimed that voters “like how he’s a little rough around the edges.”
Ryan drew sizable crowds on the stump last week and dealt smoothly with the occasional interruption from hecklers. Still, the question of how his appeal translates beyond committed Republican supporters is an open one. Polls conducted since Ryan was chosen have shown only a modest positive ‘bounce’ overall for the GOP ticket.
Results have varied widely from state to state. A Purple Strategies poll conducted in Ohio found Romney’s standing against Obama has improved by 5 percentage points since Ryan’s selection, catapulting him into the lead. But the same company found that the Republican’s small lead in Florida had eroded by 2 percentage points since the pick.
Florida could be especially problematic for the Romney-Ryan ticket, given the prominence now accorded to Medicare and the fact that seniors make up an unusually large segment of the Sunshine State’s electorate.
Exit polls from the 2008 presidential election indicated that 22 percent of voters in Florida were 65 or older, whereas that age group accounted for only 16 percent of voters nationally.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, asserted that Ryan could be a drag on the Republican ticket in some parts of the state but cautioned that even in the past few days “it is becoming clearer that the Medicare issue is not so much of a slam-dunk for the Democrats as they expected.”
Still, Republicans like Rollins believe the state needs special attention from the Romney-Ryan team.
“We don’t win without Florida,” he said. “So what you do is, you make Ryan spend a lot of time in Florida, going around the different media markets, and explaining what he wants to do. You can’t run away from it. You have to explain it.”
Democrats are insistent that efforts by Republicans to go on offense on Medicare — an effort which involved Romney breaking out a whiteboard on Thursday to illustrate the differences between his plans and Obama’s — are doomed to failure.
“Romney now owns the Ryan budget and all that it entails — and most of what it entails is pain,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “Not only does he own this draconian change to Medicare but the issue itself is elevated within the campaign.”
Mellman and Simmons, speaking independently of each other, both raised the point that there are political issues on which one party has an inbuilt, long-standing advantage. They contend that, when it comes to social programs in general and Medicare in particular, the battlefield is tilted in their favor.
“Trying to persuade people that the Democrats want to hurt Medicare is like trying to convince people that Republicans want to hurt the military,” Simmons said, asking rhetorically: “What is a Democrat for, if not for Medicare?”
Even so, Republican worries on the Medicare question have been ameliorated — if not entirely erased — by the Romney campaign’s assertive approach.
That approach has revolved around the near-constant repetition of the assertion — hotly contested by Democrats and rated as “mostly false” by the non-partisan Politifact website — that Obama’s signature healthcare reform would cut $716 billion from Medicare.
Even as Democrats seethe about the Romney camp’s claims, Republicans admire the moxie with which the strategy has — so far — been pulled off.
“I think the jiu jitsu Romney/Ryan seem to have pulled off on Medicare has been brilliant,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon said. “They’ve made a potential weakness a strength.”