Paul Ryan, the U.S. congressman turned vice presidential candidate, started crying before he reached the stage last night in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Standing before a cheering crowd of more than 10,000 people, the fifth-generation native son wiped the tears from his eyes, said hello to his mother and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man who over the weekend elevated his national stature, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I’m a Wisconsinite through and through,” Ryan said, his voice shaking, “And I just got to tell you how much this means to be home.”
The rally capped a whirlwind two days for Ryan that began when he joined Romney on Aug. 11 in Norfolk, Virginia, where the former Massachusetts governor introduced him as his running mate. After the pair campaigned in Virginia that day and in North Carolina yesterday, Ryan basked in the emotional return to his home state and stressed his deep connections to it.
“My veins run with cheese, bratwurst, and a little Spotted Cow, Leinie’s and some Miller,” he said, referring to two foods and three beers closely linked to Wisconsin. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers,” the state’s main professional and college sports teams.
He also noted that he still lives in Janesville, the town about 60 miles southwest of Waukesha where he was raised and where many relatives reside just blocks away from him, his wife and three children.
In his hometown, a struggling one-time auto-manufacturing community with a population of about 64,000, voter opinions of the seven-term congressman reflect Ryan’s blunt, castor-oil approach to solving the nation’s fiscal crisis. Interviews there over the weekend found few middling sentiments about the lawmaker who first won his House seat at age 28.
“He’s a straight-talker with a lot of integrity, and he’s done a good job telling people the reality of the situation,” said Kayla Hiller, 42, an attorney who called Ryan’s vice presidential candidacy “great, and it’ll put Janesville on the map.”
Less than a mile away, among the gracious Victorian homes atop Courthouse Hill, where Ryan and his family live, Tammy Brydon offered a counterpoint.
“I think he’s worthless,” said Brydon, 50, a former factory worker now on disability and confined to a wheelchair. “I met him once and asked him some questions and he just blew me off.”
Janesville, where more than a thousand sport utility vehicles a day used to be turned out, is a postcard of Midwestern industrial decline. The General Motors Co. assembly plant that had been its economic lifeblood since 1919 closed in 2008. Unemployment in the metropolitan area in June was 8.6 percent, compared with 7 percent for the state.
Ryan, 42, whose family roots in Janesville reach back to the 1880’s, is a flashpoint in arguments over how to eliminate the federal budget deficit and control entitlement spending -- a debate his selection by Romney will intensify in the presidential campaign.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has pushed for a downsized government through sweeping spending cuts paired with tax cuts, especially for the wealthy. His best-known proposal would replace Medicare, the health-insurance program for the elderly, with a plan offering a fixed amount of money for private insurance.
Democrats have seized on that plan to brand Ryan a budget-cutting zealot whose selection shows Romney’s disregard for the middle class.
Romney advisers see the pick as a game-changing decision that injects a jolt of excitement into their campaign -- and may give them a political edge in Ryan’s home state. Winning Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, which President Barack Obama carried by 14 percentage points over Republican John McCain in 2008, would provide Romney an easier path to the White House.
The challenges he faces him in Wisconsin include its track record in presidential elections. The last Republican to carry it was President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election in which he lost only one state -- Democratic challenger Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota.
A Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll of likely Wisconsin voters taken before Ryan’s selection showed Obama leading Romney, 51 percent to 45 percent. The survey, conducted July 31 through Aug. 6, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Across Ryan’s southern Wisconsin House district that stretches east from Janesville to the industrial cities of Kenosha and Racine, the new national spotlight on him revived divisions over what should be done about the government’s finances.
“He’s a grounded person and he’s not doing crazy stuff,” said Mike Casey, a corporate fleet manager attending a farmer’s market in downtown Janesville. “We have to be smarter with our money.”
Smart isn’t the issue, fairness is, said Jill Boyd, a school counselor in Kenosha.
“It’s all about not taking care of the people,” she said in a visit to Racine. “They say it’s about the middle class but it’s not. The middle class has shrunk to about nothing.”
Few had a bad word to say about Ryan personally. His policies, however, gave some pause. At the farmer’s market, Vietnam veteran Steve Punzel said he is worried about the effects on health-care coverage.
“I’m 61, I’m on disability and I’ve got hip problems,” said Punzel. “Some people just can’t afford a higher bill.”
While Punzel said he has voted for Ryan before, he wants to know more before supporting the newly minted Republican presidential ticket.
Sitting with his 8-year-old daughter Tatum along the Rock River, Rad Adkins, an economist, said the selection of Ryan is “a big statement and a bold statement and will be well received in some circles.”
That means “the financial elite,” said Adkins, 36, who said Ryan’s combination of tax cuts and spending reductions don’t balance. “It’s not good policy and it’s mathematically impossible,” he said.
In Kenosha, Paul Cardin, 49, applauded the Ryan pick, saying he brings a “solid financial plan” to the Romney campaign.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever seen put down anything on paper to actually build a budget or stick to a budget,” said Cardin, a park services manager for Six Flags Great America in north suburban Chicago.
Cardin said Ryan offers “an opportunity to start a dialogue” over the nation’s budget problems.
Ryan, first elected to his House seat in 1998 at age 28, has easily won each of his seven elections, carrying the last six contests by two-to-one margins.
“I think Wisconsin Republicans define the brand of the party different from the rest of the nation,” said Jason Mielke, chairman of the Rock County Republican Party. “We see a problem and propose a straight-up solution, even if it is not politically popular.”
Bonnie Sheerin is a retired autoworker in Kenosha, where Chrysler LLC shut down the company’s engine plant. She said Ryan “is not exactly for the middle class or the lower class of this country, which he’s shown and proven” in his political career.
“I think he’s completely out of touch with the problems of the middle class and the elderly,” Sheerin said.
Wisconsin law allows Ryan to remain up for re-election to his House seat in November’s election, even as he seeks the vice presidency.