Paul Ryan's first week: Heavy on attacks, light on wonkery

Mitt Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, has a controversial Medicare plan that may turn off many older voters. Chip Reid reports on how Ryan is trying to sell his plan to voters in the key swing state of Florida.
Ryan in Florida defending Medicare voucher program

(CBS News) RICHMOND, Va. - As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan is known for policy wonkiness and knowledge of minute details of the U.S. budget. During his first week on the national campaign trail, however, he largely devoted himself to full-throated attacks on President Obama.

Part of Ryan's approach is grounded in tradition: The historical role of the vice presidential candidate is less to offer specific policy proposals than to ensure that voters don't trust those offered by the other side. Vice President Joe Biden is playing that part for the administration, tearing apart Ryan and Mitt Romney just as much as Ryan lambastes Obama (case in point: Biden's infamous"chains" comment earlier this week).

But part of it also is by design. Ryan's aides see a value in having him spend most of his time focusing on Obama's record.

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"This election presents a clear contrast," said Ryan spokesman Michael Steel. "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have a plan for the middle class that will get our economy moving and create jobs, while the president's campaign is resorting to the politics of frustration and division because they can't defend their failed record."

Ryan's stump speech already has taken on a fairly consistent structure in the dozen or so speeches he has delivered in the past week.

He reviews Romney's retooled, five-point plan to help the middle class, criticizes Obama for running a negative campaign, and discusses an issue or two designed by Romney's Boston headquarters to drive the day. Monday was welfare in Iowa; Tuesday was energy in Denver and the foreclosure crisis in Nevada; Wednesday was student loans and Medicare.

Each of the topics has been given brief treatment that is heavily weighted toward criticism of Obama. Take, for example, Ryan's mention of the foreclosure crisis during a campaign stop in Las Vegas on Tuesday evening.

"Of all the places, of all the places that need jobs and for home values to rebound, it's Nevada," he said. "It's amazing. Since the president took office, 8.5 million foreclosure filings. Home values down an average of $20,000. Eleven million homes underwater. Nevada ranks fifth in foreclosures. The unemployment rate ... 11.6 percent in Nevada. You deserve better than that. You deserve jobs in your economy, you deserve an America that's heading in the right direction," Ryan said.

The subject received less than one minute in an 18-minute speech. If there were no housing solutions offered, it may have been because Romney and Ryan have similar views on foreclosures that may not play well in Nevada.

"Don't try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit bottom," Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. Ryan told TV host Charlie Rose much the same thing in 2010: "Housing is going to have to hit bottom before it can come up."

Romney's speeches have been lighter on policy details since he began promoting the five-point economic plan this summer in place of the 59-point plan he rolled out last year. The speech he won most attention for over the past week was when he accused Obama of being an angry, desperate president and told him to "take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago."

Obama, at multiple stops over three days this week in Iowa, spent plenty of time in his stump speech sharply criticizing the Romney-Ryan approach to taxes and the federal budget. He also defended his record and ran down a laundry list of policies he'd like to pursue in a second term.

One subject that has elicited some specificity on both sides is energy. Obama talked about wind and solar energy Tuesday in Haverhill, Iowa, stressing his support for extending a wind-industry tax credit, and said he wants to end $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to the oil industry. The same day, in Lakewood, Colo., Ryan offered a detailed critique of Obama energy policies and said the GOP ticket would ease regulations on emissions and hydraulic fracking, and approve the Keystone Pipeline.

Ryan does appear to acknowledge that he'll need to be more than an attack dog in the months ahead. As he said in Nevada, "You see, we're not going to go to people in this country and say, 'The other guy is so bad, therefore vote for me by default."

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.