TAMPA, Fla. — Paul Ryan wants to talk policy. Mitt Romney’s team wants his No. 2 to focus more on his immigrant family and small-town values.
The top of the ticket is certain to win out as the Wisconsin congressman accepts the vice presidential nomination of his party Wednesday night. Ryan will deliver a speech to thousands of delegates at the Republican convention, and millions of viewers watching from home, that will be unlike most Ryan tends to favor. This one is likely to be heavy on personality and lighter on policy.
Ryan’s willingness to focus on his personal story and play down policy is the latest example that of him deferring to Romney’s preferences. As Ryan puts it, Romney is “the boss.” Not the other way around.
Ryan and his team, a mix of longtime aides and new advisers, have spent a chunk of the past few weeks writing — and re-writing — the speech. Drafts have been emailed from his campaign plane and his kitchen table in Janesville, Wis., to speechwriters in Tampa and top Romney advisers at the Boston headquarters.
“Words matter a lot and I’m putting a lot of effort into them,” said Ryan, a former speechwriter to 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and former Education Secretary William Bennett.
Early versions were scrapped and adjusted to include bits of Ryan’s natural, easygoing speaking style. In between campaign events and daily workouts, Ryan has been working to put his own voice into the drafts. At campaign events, Ryan has tended to favor policy over his personal story. From Ohio to Virginia to Florida, he talks more often about the nation’s debt and deficit than his own life as a congressional aide who became a congressman at age 28. The 42-year-old is more comfortable citing Congressional Budget Office statistics than real people.
Romney’s aides want that to change. Advisers are pushing Ryan toward more personal territory.
The hope among Romney’s team is that the nation gets to know Ryan’s story, one they say working-class voters could relate to. Left unsaid is the fact that Ryan’s policy positions, specifically his controversial budget proposals, have caused headaches for Romney and dominated the storyline of the campaign since he was named the running mate.
On Wednesday, Ryan plans to talk not just about Romney’s promises to repair the economy and Obama’s failures to do it, but also about his own upbringing. A message of small-town values and self-reliance is set to play a prominent role in his speech.
Ryan offered a preview of that message Monday at the Janesville, Wis., high school where he cheered for classmates two decades ago. He spoke of his ancestors’ journey in the 1850s from Ireland to Wisconsin. Reflecting on more recent history, Ryan spoke of his time in the town when he said neighbors took care of each other.
“What we do in our communities is we look out for one another,” he said. “That’s what’s so special. That’s what government can’t replace or displace.”
Look for him also to acknowledge the economic troubles that have hit Janesville, a city that has become synonymous with Ryan’s Midwestern appeal. On Monday, he said the city’s response to the rough economy is what the United States should do on a grand scale.
“That’s the kind of thing we need to do is pick ourselves up, help people in need, give them the job training skills they have, flourish entrepreneurs and small businesses so that people can get back on their feet,” he said.
Aides are seeking to lower expectations, saying not to expect a blockbuster speech like the one 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin delivered. Instead, Ryan is likely to paint a picture of himself as a reasonable governing partner for Romney.
On Tuesday, asked if he was ready as he boarded his plane to Tampa, Ryan simply said: “I am.” The usually media-friendly politician ignored reporters’ other questions. En route to the convention, he huddled with senior adviser Dan Senor and senior aide Conor Sweeney. As Ryan read through the speech again, he dictated changes to Sweeney, who typed them into an Apple laptop.
By that point, aides said, the speech was almost finished, but Ryan wanted to put some final polishes on it and make sure it is to his liking. He knows he will not get a second chance to have this wide of an introduction.