If there were any questions about whether Paul Ryan would spark strong reactions as Republican Mitt Romney’s newly picked running mate, they were answered amid the Jumbo Corn Dog stands and funnel cake carts of the Iowa State Fair.
As the Wisconsin congressman yesterday gamely plowed through a stump speech, hecklers screamed, supporters chanted and the police pulled protesters from the stage.
“Iowans and Wisconsinites, we like to be respectful of one another,” Ryan said after two women scrambled over hay bales to jump onto the small podium. “These ladies must not be from Iowa or Wisconsin.”
Ryan’s addition to the presidential campaign has reshaped the contest, injecting a shot of energy into Romney’s bid and transforming the race into a referendum on the role of government. President Barack Obama was also in Iowa yesterday, starting a three-day bus tour to reignite enthusiasm in the state he won four years ago.
While his budget-cutting proposals have made Ryan a hero to anti-tax advocates, Democrats are using those plans to label him an extremist. As head of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has proposed measures to overhaul Medicare and reduce federal spending for almost all government programs, aside from the military.
Walking through the fairgrounds in Des Moines in his first solo appearance since Romney named him as his vice presidential selection on Aug. 11, Ryan refused to answer questions about his policy positions.
“We’ll play stump the running mate later,” he said, flashing a smile to the throng of trailing reporters and photographers.
Shortly after Ryan took the stage at the fair’s soap box, a traditional stop for presidential candidates, two women climbed onto it as they yelled attacks at him.
“Are you going to cut Medicare?” shouted another woman in the crowd.
The largely supportive audience erupted into chants of “USA,” drowning out Ryan. The protesters, too, kept screaming, turning his 12-minute speech into a raucous and ideologically tinged face-off.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund said in a statement that it organized the protest and that close to two dozen of its members participated.
Ryan stayed calm and used his speech to assail Obama.
“As you see the president come through on his bus tour, you might ask the same question that I’m going to ask: Where are the jobs, Mr. President,” Ryan said.
Still, Ryan’s appearance illustrated how quickly he has become a lightning rod in the campaign, with both sides fighting to define the new vice presidential candidate for voters.
The Iowa Action Fund group identified the woman who shouted the Medicare question as Cherie Mortice, a retired public school teacher. In the group’s news release, Mortice says Romney and Ryan “are on a personal crusade to balance the budget on the backs of everyday people and hardworking families so their buddies on Wall Street can rake in even more corporate profits that they don’t need.”
Obama used Ryan’s presence in the state to argue that Republicans are obstructionists, saying the lawmaker is “one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way” of passing a farm bill that would provide relief from the drought.
“So, if you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities,” Obama said at a rally in Council Bluffs. “We’ve got to put politics aside when it comes to doing the right thing for rural America and for Iowa.”
Romney campaign aides pointed to Ryan’s Midwestern background as a sign of his support for agriculture. They highlighted his vote for a bill to provide short-term disaster relief to farmers and ranchers that the Republican-controlled House passed on Aug. 2. The Democratic-controlled Senate didn’t take up the measure before Congress left for a monthlong break.
“The truth is no one will work harder to defend farmers and ranchers than the Romney-Ryan ticket,” said spokesman Ryan Williams in a statement.
Wearing jeans and scuffed cowboy boots, Ryan focused on trying to bond with voters he met as he walked through the fairgrounds in the middle of the media horde.
“We do cow milking contests in Wisconsin,” he told a small group of voters. “I usually lose to a 17-year-old girl who grew up on a dairy farm.”
Ryan remains unknown to many voters, with one out of three voters saying they had no opinion of him in a poll conducted Aug. 11-12 by ABC News and the Washington Post.
“We don’t really know him,” said Joy Evans, a farmer from Bloomfield, Iowa, visiting the fair with her husband. “Did he balance the budget in Wisconsin?”
Last night, Ryan headlined his first fundraisers for the campaign. The events, both in private homes, were expected to raise around $1 million, according to campaign aides.
Ryan will hold rallies today in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, and Las Vegas. He is also expected to hold a private fundraising event at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The hotel is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp. head Sheldon Adelson, who has contributed $10 million to a group backing Romney.
Obama visited the Iowa fairgrounds last night, working lines of hundreds of well-wishers as his campaign aides recorded video for possible future ads. He politely declined a cinnamon roll at one food stand, saying he was holding out for pork on a stick.
As the sun was sinking, the president met 2012 Iowa State Fair Queen Abrah Meyer, 17, who was decked out in a tiara and purple dress and matching sash. “Four more years!” chanted a crowd penned inside the beer tent just yards away.
Obama’s three-day schedule in Iowa represents a significant investment of time for just six electoral votes, a fraction of Ohio’s 18 or Florida’s 29, out of the 270 needed to win the White House.
“A state he won by nine points four years ago is requiring a three-day bus tour,” said David Kochel, a Romney Iowa strategist. “He’s trying to address what is a lot of buyer’s remorse out here.”
At a snow-cone stand in Denison, Iowa, Obama chatted with Terry and Brian Evers, a father and son who own a family farm. He asked about their corn and soy crop yields, which Brian, 47, said were down about 50 percent because of the drought.
The Evers are the sort of voters Obama is counting on in Iowa. Both backed him in 2008 and said they will again. Both said they had been registered Republicans and switched this year -- Terry Evers to Democrat and his son to independent -- because of what they saw as the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to compromise. That included the stalled farm bill.
“I think this is a good trip for him,” Brian Evers said of Obama’s bus tour. “He needs to go around Iowa. He needs to rally the troops, basically. It sounds very tight for him.”