TAMPA, Fla. — Capping his meteoric rise to the heights of the Republican Party, Paul Ryan accepted the party's vice presidential nomination Wednesday, saying he considered it "a calling" at a time when the country needs to make tough decisions — and pledging that he and Mitt Romney won't shirk from them.
Mr. Ryan's speech capped off an evening that saw the Republicans try to ease Rep. Ron Paul off the political stage, and saw the party pay tribute to its living former presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
But Mr. Ryan's address, which delivered budget-cutting marching orders to an eager and ever more rightward-leaning GOP, served as what he called a "clean break" from both President Obama and from the most recent Bush administration, when the Republicans deepened deficits and enacted a new entitlement program.
"You are entitled to the clearest possible choice," Mr. Ryan told voters. "So here is our pledge. We will not duck the tough issues, we will lead. We will not spend four years blaming others, we will take responsibility. We will not try to replace our founding principles, we will reapply our founding principles."
It was the biggest stage yet for the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman, who cut his teeth on deep policy debates but now becomes the Republican Party's chief cheerleader for presidential nominee Mr. Romney, and its chief attack-dog in the battle against Mr. Obama.
On that score, he fired off a series of one-liners, including mocking Mr. Obama's 2008 appeal to young voters.
"College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," Mr. Ryan said.
He also pointedly said that November's election marks a new beginning, not an end, to the Republican push to halt the health care law.
"The president has declared that the debate over government-controlled health care is over. That will come as news to the millions of Americans who will elect Mitt Romney so we can repeal Obamacare," Mr. Ryan said.
But his selection could also elevate the campaign conversation, pushing his plans for Medicare, Medicaid and spending cuts to the forefront of the debate and, at times, even pushing the day-to-day campaign insults and countercharges off the front pages.
Three years after the tea party became a major political force, Mr. Ryan brings the insurgent movement's principles to the highest levels of Washington power as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation's economic problems," Mr. Ryan said. "And I'm going to level with you — we don't have that much time. But if we are serious, and smart, and we lead, we can do this."
While Mr. Ryan's selection as his party's No. 2 has energized the Republicans, Democrats are also salivating over the chance to run against his budget plans.
"If Romney and Ryan get their way, seniors' Medicare would be replaced with a voucher that drops in value as health costs rise. Seniors will have to eat rising costs while millionaires like Mitt Romney get a tax cut," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Mr. Ryan's Democratic counterpart on the Budget Committee, said in a fundraising email Wednesday.
In his speech Mr. Ryan pointed to his grandmother and mother, who he said have relied on Medicare, as a way of trying to deflect those charges.
"Mitt Romney and I know the difference between protecting a program, and raiding it," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate."
But he shied away from actually engaging the debate on Wednesday, never defending his plan.
While all sides say this year's election will turn on domestic and economic issues, Wednesday's speeches carved out time for Republicans to serenade Mr. Romney as a budding world leader, capable of taking on a troubled global situation.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who reportedly flirted with a run for president, praised the incoming Republican ticket as having a grasp of what needs to be done.
"America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect. But, of course, it has never been inevitable — it has taken leadership, courage and an unwavering faith in our values," she said. "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have the integrity and the experience and the vision to lead us — they know who we are, what we want to be, they know who we are in the world, and what we offer the world."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Mr. Romney, the man who four years ago was his bitter opponent for the party's nomination, now "represents our best hopes for our country."
But even more than backing Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain delivered a pointed attack on the foreign policy of Mr. Obama, the man who bested him in the 2008 general election.
"We can't afford to have the security of our nation and those who bravely defend it endangered because their government leaks the secrets of their heroic operations to the media," the senator said, referring to claims that Mr. Obama has tried to exploit for political purpose the successful raid to kill Osama bin Laden.
The night's session kicked off with a video tribute to Mr. Paul, the maverick Republican presidential candidate who still has yet to endorse Mr. Romney, and whose supporters are debating whether they can back the GOP nominee.
"Twenty-two years in Congress, he's never voted for a tax increase, never voted for a debt ceiling increase. Never waivered, never backed down," the video announcer said, laying out exactly the reason the congressman came to be known as Dr. No.
Minutes after the video, Mr. Paul's campaign sent it around in an email to supporters — though the missive had no praise for Mr. Romney, instead vowing that "there's no denying that WE are the future of the Republican Party."
On the concourse outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Mr. Paul's supporters in the Maine delegate, who walked out of the convention Tuesday during a rules fight, marched and chanted: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."
Even as they remain divided on Mr. Romney, they are pondering who is best-positioned to claim the leadership Mr. Paul is giving up. Judging by the applause in the arena Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Justin Amash, and Mr. Paul's son Sen. Rand Paul, who all appeared on the tribute video, are potential heirs to the movement the Texan birthed.
The elder Mr. Paul didn't win the five states needed to earn a speaking slot at the convention, but Mr. Romney's campaign did give time to Rand Paul, who picked up his father's limited-government message with his own biting attack on the president's health law, and a reaffirmation of his support for Mr. Romney.
"To lead us forward, away from the looming debt crisis, it will take someone who believes in America's greatness, who believes in and can articulate the American dream, someone who has created jobs," the senator said. "I believe that someone is our nominee, Gov. Mitt Romney."
Still, he did carve out some stances that differ from Mr. Romney, including the need for some defense spending cuts. Mr. Romney has pledged to increase spending on the military instead.
Even as the convention looked forward to Mr. Romney, it took a reverential look back at the former Bush presidents with a video in which they joked and remembered their days in the Oval Office. At one point, the senior Mr. Bush did his own impression of comic Dana Carvey doing an impression of him.
Former first lady Laura Bush also recalled the time a dog bit a reporter, drawing cheers and laughs from the Republican delegates.
The evening also featured speeches from several of the Republicans who were reportedly on Mr. Romney's short list of vice presidential nominees, though none had anywhere near the star-power performance of Mr. Ryan.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty compared Mr. Obama to a bad tattoo — something that you think is cool when you're young, but you come to regret later. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio joked about being on the short list but missing the cut: "Apparently, it wasn't short enough."
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