HIGH POINT, North Carolina (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign took on a celebratory tone on Sunday, as Romney and his new vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, basked in the support of cheering crowds in North Carolina.
Thousands of people lined a highway in High Point to greet Romney and Ryan, who stopped to shake hands and exchange high-fives with some of them. Another 1,300 packed into a stifling hot furniture warehouse for a rally with the Republican candidates.
“We can turn this around,” said Ryan, 42, who was speaking of the economy and budget but might as well have been referring to the campaign of Romney, who has trailed Democratic President Barack Obama in recent polls.
“We can do this. We can get this country back on track,” Ryan told the cheering crowd. “We can get our people back to work. We can get our debt paid off so we can give our children a better standard of life.”
Romney added that he and Ryan have “a long road ahead of us, but this is day two to reclaim America’s progress.”
The November 6 election is more than two months away, but Sunday’s rally had the intensity of a typical late-October campaign event. It showed how Romney’s selection of the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate has injected new energy into a campaign that had struggled to move beyond Democrats’ efforts to cast Romney as a wealthy former private equity executive who cannot relate to middle-class Americans.
Hours earlier in Virginia, where Romney introduced him as the No. 2 on the Republican ticket on Saturday, Ryan, the chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, told reporters that being thrust into the presidential campaign was “very exciting. We’re going to win this campaign. We’ve got the wind behind us.”
Romney, 65, seemed relieved to have a sidekick to end what he has called the “two against one” dynamic of the race, with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on one side and Romney on the other.
“It’s a far more compelling dynamic than just being out there on my own,” Romney said late Saturday.
But it also was evident that Romney’s selection of Ryan - who is known for his sweeping budget plan to reduce government spending and debt by trimming taxes and revamping Medicare and other social programs - is going to raise a series of hurdles for his campaign as it sprints toward Election Day.
In choosing Ryan, Romney is attaching himself to Ryan’s controversial budget plan, which has been blasted by Democrats who say it would dismantle popular social programs that help the elderly and the poor.
Ryan’s selection also suggested that Romney is tackling a prickly task during an intense, nasty and likely close race for the White House. He is asking Americans to consider tough questions about the future of Medicare, the government-backed health insurance program for the elderly, and a range of other government programs.
In previous elections, candidates who have started a not-so-popular conversation with American voters have run into problems.
In 1984, for example, Democrat Walter Mondale emphasized the need for higher taxes and was swamped at the ballot box as voters re-elected Republican Ronald Reagan.
If Romney’s campaign wants to foster a national debate over social programs and government entitlements, the big challenge will be doing so under the white-hot glow of the final weeks of a presidential campaign that so far has been defined by sound-bite messaging and out-of-context attacks by both sides.
On Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cast Romney’s campaign as the one being honest with Americans about the nation’s fiscal future and said Obama’s team is more interested in attacking Romney.
Selecting Ryan shows that Romney “has the leadership and courage to present to the American people a real contrast and a real debate that the American people deserve,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Even so, Romney’s campaign stressed that the presumptive Republican nominee would propose his own fiscal plan, suggesting it did not want the former Massachusetts governor to be tied to everything in Ryan’s budget.
“The thing you have to remember about these campaigns is that Governor Romney is at the top of the ticket, and that Governor Romney’s vision for the country is something that congressman Ryan supports,” Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said.
Democrats’ efforts to cast Ryan - and, by extension, Romney - as a threat to Medicare could be key in the election.
Ryan’s plan calls for an end to the guaranteed benefit in Medicare and replaces it with a system that would give vouchers to recipients to pay for health insurance.
The risk in such a plan is that if healthcare costs rise faster than the value of the vouchers, seniors would have to pay the difference.
Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said on “Meet the Press” that the Medicare changes supported by Ryan would send the healthcare program, which polls indicate most Americans do not want changed, into a “death spiral.”
Independent groups that typically support Democrats have been more dramatic in their criticism.
A video ad from 2011 - released by The Agenda Project when Ryan first offered his proposals on Medicare but now getting a new life online with Romney’s selection of Ryan - shows a man in a suit who resembles Ryan pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair over a cliff, while “America the Beautiful” plays.
A message then pops up at the end of the ad: “Is America beautiful without Medicare? Ask Paul Ryan and his friends in Congress.” On Sunday, an updated version of the ad surfaced on the Internet.
Romney rejected the notion that Ryan’s plan would kill Medicare.
Ryan “has a plan ... to make sure we can save Medicare,” Romney said. “And guess what, he’s one of two sponsors - and guess what, the other is a leading Democrat,” a reference to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
Wyden, however, disagreed with Romney’s characterization of his work on the Medicare issue, saying that he has voted against Medicare changes proposed in Ryan’s budget.
Wyden told The Huffington Post that he merely had worked on a “policy paper” with Ryan that was designed to “start a conversation about how Democrats and Republicans might work together to uphold the Medicare guarantee.”
During an interview that Romney and Ryan gave to CBS’s Bob Schieffer on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Ryan responded to criticism of his Medicare plan by noting that it would apply only to those younger than 55.
“My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida,” Ryan said. “Our point is, we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they’ve organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger. And we think these reforms are good reforms.”
Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Stacey Joyce