Democrats said Sunday that Mitt Romney, by picking Rep. Paul Ryan to fill out his presidential ticket, has set up this year's election as a referendum on the deep cuts to the social safety net that the GOP's top budget man says are needed to fix federal finances.
In picking Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney has turned what had been a dizzyingly petty election into a choice between two widely diverging views of the size, scope and powers of the government.
Moving swiftly to turn the Wisconsinite's lengthy record in Congress against him, Obama campaign aides said Mr. Ryan's budget plans show a Republican Party willing to change the long-standing promises of Medicare and Social Security, burdening seniors while leaving wealthy Americans' tax rates untouched.
"It's a pick that's meant to thrill the most strident voices in the Republican Party, but it's one that should trouble everyone else: the middle class, seniors, students," David Axelrod, political strategist for President Obama, said on ABC's "This Week."
Romney campaigners said they welcome that debate and will challenge voters to look past the kinds of attacks that have made Social Security and other entitlement programs untouchable in politics.
"We're making a bet that Americans are more interested in a campaign that's waged on real ideas, including entitlement reform, and that a campaign, a substantive campaign, conducted on the high ground, is going to trump the type of petty, negative politics that we're hearing from Barack Obama," Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney campaign senior adviser, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Mr. Ryan was the driving force behind the Republican budget plans for 2012 and 2013, both known as "The Path to Prosperity," that would offer a voucher-type program as part of Medicare, place caps on federal spending and lower tax rates.
Mr. Fehrnstrom said that in picking the author of that bold plan, Mr. Romney has laid claim to "the mantle of change" that Mr. Obama held in the last election.
Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter agreed that the pick was bold, but added, "I don't think that's the change we're looking for. The Romney-Ryan budget is not a budget of prosperity, it's a budget to redistribute wealth to the top."
The Obama camp has added a page to its website targeting Mr. Ryan, listing "five facts" that include "Paul Ryan's top-down budget plan is a sham" and "Paul Ryan is severely conservative." The site calls the GOP ticket "the go back team" -- a reply to the Republicans' decision to dub themselves the "comeback team."
If Mr. Romney's pick means substantive issues will be debated, it didn't put an end to the name-calling that has dominated this campaign year.
Democrats repeatedly referred Sunday to Mr. Ryan and his budget plan as "extreme," while Mr. Fehrnstrom called the Obama campaign strategy "garbage talk."
"If I had to give their campaign playbook a title, I'd call it 'Fifty Shades of Mud,'" Mr. Fehrnstrom said.
Mr. Romney announced Mr. Ryan as his running mate as he kicked off a four-day tour of swing states, beginning with Virginia.
They appeared in front of the decommissioned battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk and noted that Mr. Ryan represents Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District.
On Sunday, they campaigned together in front of overflow crowds in North Carolina before heading to Wisconsin for a quick stop.
One key question will be how they meld Mr. Ryan's public positions with those of Mr. Romney, who has laid out some ideas that are not as detailed as the Budget Committee chairman's.
In an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" program, they said they have talked about how to preserve Medicare for current retirees while working to offer more options going forward -- a way to begin to adapt Mr. Ryan's plans into the campaign framework.
Campaign advisers told reporters that Mr. Romney would be the top of the ticket.
Speaking at a campaign fundraiser in Chicago, Mr. Obama called Mr. Ryan "the ideological leader of Republicans in Congress."
"He is a decent man, he is a family man, he is an articulate spokesman for Gov. Romney's vision, but it is a vision that I fundamentally disagree with," Mr. Obama said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said the Ryan budget plan "would really jeopardize seniors in nursing homes, potentially take 10 million students off of Pell Grants, cut health care, cut education."
"Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney would allow seniors to fall right through that floor because they would pull the rug out from under seniors, give them a voucher, tell them they are essentially on their own, drive up their health care costs and then cost their families even more," Mrs. Schultz said on "Fox News Sunday."
Republicans countered by arguing that the Ryan selection highlights the Obama administration's lack of progress on issues such as the budget, the federal deficit and entitlement reform.
While Mr. Ryan's 2012 budget proposal won House approval before being defeated in the Senate, Republicans noted that Senate Democrats have not been able to pass a budget in more than three years, and Mr. Obama's own budget this year was defeated unanimously in both the House and Senate.
"There has been no effort whatsoever on the part of this administration to address the looming crises of Social Security and Medicare," Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday." "Paul Ryan has taken the courageous steps to bring this issue to the forefront."
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Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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