WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of the first things Congressman Paul Ryan said on Saturday when accepting the role of Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate was that even though he was in Congress he had “never really left” his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin in the American Midwest.
Ryan’s focus on domestic issues and his reputation as a rather wonky budget hawk confirm that Romney sees the November contest with President Barack Obama as a referendum over the U.S. economy and the size of the federal budget.
Still, although U.S. voters overwhelmingly cite economic issues as their main concern, they also want reassurance that their leaders can execute the role of commander-in-chief.
Introducing Ryan on Saturday, Romney said his new running mate was ready. But Democrats are already aiming at what they say is a dearth of national security experience on the Republican ticket.
“I think his (Ryan‘s) experience as a vice presidential candidate is thin; or for a future president and commander-in-chief, it’s virtually absent,” said Tim Roemer, a former congressman, former ambassador to India and member of the commission that reported on the circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
Obama had little foreign policy experience when he ran for president in 2008 as Illinois’ junior senator. He chose to balance that by tapping Senator Joe Biden, who had a long history of international experience and contacts, as his vice president.
None of the four men running for the two highest offices in the land are military veterans.
Romney campaign officials contend that Ryan does bring experience in the foreign policy department, particularly when it comes to dealing with the defense budget.
“This election is going to be about which candidate has the right vision for growing the economy and balancing our budget, but Governor Romney chose Congressman Ryan first and foremost because he’s ready on day one to step in as commander-in-chief, should he need to assume that responsibility,” said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck.
Romney and Ryan “share the view that America’s leadership position in the world is based on a robust national defense, strengthened relationships with our allies and a philosophy of peace through strength,” Buck said.
The two campaigns took the debate over Ryan’s foreign policy qualifications to the Sunday morning talk shows.
Eric Fehnstrom, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “Paul Ryan has the same amount of foreign policy experience that Barack Obama had when he was sworn in as president.”
Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, seized on Romney’s recent, gaffe-plagued trip to Europe and Israel, during which he offended Britain by questioning London’s readiness to host the Olympics and suggested the Palestinians’ culture was at the root of their economic plight.
“I think that was proof positive that Mitt Romney doesn’t have the judgment necessary to be America’s commander in chief. And whether Paul Ryan can help him with that, we’ll see,” she told the CBS news talk show.
Even as he has championed huge cuts in government spending, Ryan has been protective of the Pentagon’s budget, those in the defense community say.
“Paul Ryan understands how important it is to get our fiscal house in order, but also that short-sighted, budget-driven defense strategies are not good for our defense,” said Representative Howard McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
He said Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, worked to put billions of extra money into defense by finding cuts in other areas of the budget that the Republican-run House of Representatives approved this year.
“We had more in defense than the president asked for,” McKeon said in a telephone interview.
What is known of Ryan’s position on other national security issues suggests that he is in the mainstream of Republican conservatism.
How his choice will affect serious frictions within the Romney campaign between foreign policy hard-liners and more centrist advisers is unclear. Romney’s rhetoric has tended to reflect the hard-liners’ views.
“My sense is that Ryan is just a generic Republican on foreign policy,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Ryan will have to be tutored in this subject prior to his debate with Biden ... Biden will be loaded for bear in his own area,” Sabato said.
Ryan’s website suggests he is in the Republican mainstream when it comes to the war in Afghanistan. He offers no great enthusiasm for the war, but does express concern that the pace of the pullout of U.S. troops under Obama “has the potential to pose security threats to soldiers” that stay behind.
His position as a strong supporter of Israel aligns him with the majority of both parties in Congress. He does not appear to have said a lot about the conflict in Syria, where Obama’s policy has sharply limited U.S. involvement.
Ryan’s constant emphasis on fiscal soundness could also play well on the international stage, said Tom Donnelly, the director of defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank in Washington.
“There is one thing the world really wants to know about the United States - will we get the government’s financial house in order?” Donnelly said.
Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov and Paul Eckert; Editing by Warren Strobel and Sandra Maler