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Monday, August 27, 2012

Before the Convention, a Hometown Rally for Ryan


JANESVILLE, Wis. - Here where the first sparks of his political career were struck with his election as class president, Representative Paul D. Ryan returned for a boisterous rally at Joseph A. Craig High School on Monday, before flying to the Republican National Convention to accept his party's vice-presidential nomination - a trip now delayed by a day, until Tuesday, because of Tropical Storm Isaac.

Mr. Ryan, who lives with his family on Courthouse Hill around the corner from where he grew up, walked to the stage between a line of pom-pom-waving cheerleaders with his wife, Janna, and their three young children, one in a yellow cheese-head hat. His mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, and his father-in-law, Dan Little, were also on hand.

“I think I recognize every face in this room,'' Mr. Ryan said, visibly moved. “This gym means so much, it's so familiar.''

Mr. Ryan described how he was a fifth-generation Janesville resident with 60-odd cousins in town, who traced their roots to Irish immigrants in the 1850s.

“Our family's story is not that much different than most Americans' family stories,'' he said.

Friends credit Mr. Ryan's rootedness â€" he returns here from Washington three or four days a week â€" as keeping him down to earth and approachable. “Paul is Janesville,'' said Joe Knilans, a state assemblyman. “He's the guy in the Packers hat in the supermarket when you walk down the aisle.''

Republican strategists are hoping that same quality will enhance the appeal of the Republican ticket to middle-class voters, balancing Mitt Romney's image of youthful privilege and business wealth.

Mr. Ryan struck the same note here by embracing President Obama's disparagement of Rust Belt voters in 2008 as clinging to guns and religion. “Guilty as charged,'' he said, speaking as a hunter “whose tree stand is about six miles in that d irection.''

“We have a big choice to make, not just picking the next president for a few years,” Mr. Ryan told supporters. “We're picking the pathway for America for a generation.”

In response, the Obama campaign said the Republican ticket's economic proposals would undermine the middle class. “They'd raise taxes for middle-class families with kids by an average of $2,000, turn Medicare into a voucher system and slash critical investments in education and infrastructure,” a spokesman, Danny Kanner, said in a statement. “And they'd do it all to pay for massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.”

An adviser to Mr. Ryan said that the hullabaloo that had attended him since he was named Mr. Romney's running mate two weeks ago â€" Secret Service motorcades, people fainting in large crowds, supporters on rope lines saying they pray for him â€" had been “an out-of-body experience” for Mr. Ryan.

“He's perplexed about it,'' the a dviser said. “‘Is all this for me?' He can't believe all this is going on around him. He has a very healthy perspective.''

A city of 64,000 in southern Wisconsin, Janesville is like many cities in the industrial Midwest, where a high school diploma once secured a middle-class job but no longer does. The closing of a General Motors plant in 2008 swept away 6,000 jobs. The 2012 race may, in part, come down to which campaign is best able to appeal to voters in places like Janesville in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Although Mr. Ryan spoke beneath a banner that said “Paul Ryan: The Pride of Janesville,'' he does not enjoy universal support in his hometown. About 30 protesters gathered beneath their own banner outside, which said, “Paul Ryan Is Not On Our Side.''

His Congressional district, which stretches from Janesville east to the shore of Lake Michigan, is a swing district that George W. Bush won in 2004 and President Obama in 2008. (That same year, Mr. Ryan won re-election a fifth time in a 29-percentage-point landslide.)

In downtown Janesville on Sunday evening, voters expressed a wide variety of views on Mr. Ryan. Kevin Warnecke, 40, a deputy sheriff, displayed a cellphone photo of himself with Mr. Ryan and recalled hearing him at a town-hall-style meeting a year ago. “He's phenomenal,'' he said. “There's not a man in the United States government who knows numbers like Paul Ryan knows numbers.''

Thomas Lee, 58, a registered nurse who once taught middle school art in Janesville, disagreed. “His methods don't solve the problems for low-income people, for middle-class people,'' he said. “Coming from the health world, I've seen people suffer when things get cut.''

Ken Kemler, 55, a restaurant owner, said that he could not afford health insurance for his employees, including two grown sons, and that he hoped that the president's health care law would allow him to do so. “Wh en Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney talk about business, they're not talking about me with 30 part-time employees,” he said. “They're talking about the Koch brothers.''

Laura Cleansby, 51, a warehouse clerk, said that she had voted for Mr. Obama but that, if the election were held today, she would choose the Republican ticket out of disappointment with high unemployment.

“I always thought Republicans were more for the rich,'' she said. “Paul Ryan seems to be more for people like us, the middle class. He seems to know more about us, what we're thinking.''