Choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney made a bold statement on his campaign's central economic issues but also one that could be risky — particularly in the crucial swing state of Florida.
Ryan, 42, a seven-term House member from Wisconsin, is widely viewed as the Republican Party's intellectual leader for his budget proposals, which include the most drastic alterations in Medicare and Social Security ever embraced by a national party.
Florida Republicans unanimously praised the strategy as the party prepares for its Tampa convention Aug. 27, and some said they have no regrets that Romney didn't pick the state's favorite Republican son, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami.
"It's going to energize a substantive policy debate. We're not going to talk about silly things like tax returns," said veteran Republican strategist and fundraiser Justin Sayfie of Miami.
Tony DiMatteo, a Pinellas County GOP activist and early supporter of Rubio, accepted the choice.
"Sure it would have been neat to know the vice president personally, but I think it's not his time yet," DiMatteo said. Rubio, he added, remains "a rising star."
Rubio, in a prepared statement, called Ryan "a truly inspired choice" who "understands our nation's challenges (and) has proposed bold policies to solve them." Rubio noted that Ryan was an early backer of his while he was challenging former Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Republican Senate primary.
Democrats, who have been using Ryan's budget proposals to attack Republican congressional candidates for a year, promised to do the same in the presidential race.
They pushed studies showing the Medicare changes would add thousands of dollars a year to a typical senior's health care costs.
"I can say with no doubt, middle-class families and seniors in my home state of Florida want no part of a Romney-Ryan economic scheme that puts millionaires ahead of Medicare," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who's also chairwoman of the national Democratic Party.
In recent days, with polls showing Obama building a modest lead nationwide, some Republicans had urged Romney to put caution aside in choosing a running mate and "go bold," in the words of conservative commentator Bill Kristol.
They focused on Ryan or Rubio — one considered the party's hottest rising star and the other a top emissary to Hispanics, a fast-growing voter group whose alienation from the GOP threatens the party's future.
University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said Romney did a little of both. "It's a cautiously bold choice," Jewett joked.
Romney didn't seek a demographic boost with a minority or female candidate, instead picking someone "well known as a policy guy," Jewett said.
"It's a little bit risky, but Ryan is someone most people would agree is capable of being president. He clears the low bar: First, do no harm."
Several Republicans said Saturday they see no threat that Florida seniors will reject the ticket over Ryan's proposals to change entitlement programs.
"I think people are over the demagoguery," said Hillsborough County Republican activist Sam Rashid. "Everyone understands that this entire system, if it's not beefed up, is going to be nonexistent. I don't think it's a holy grail that no one can touch any more."
But Jewett said recognizing the problem isn't the same as accepting a solution.
"When you ask Americans if they're concerned about the deficit, they are," he said. "But when you present specific cuts or taxes to do something about it, they don't want to hear it."
The Ryan budget proposal includes changing Medicare to a voucher program, or "premium support" program in Republican parlance. It would partially privatize Social Security, allowing taxpayers to direct part of their Social Security tax payments to a government-managed, personal investment account instead of Social Security.
"I would say let the battle begin — let's focus on the tough issues," said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican. "That's better for the country. Sooner or later, Republicans are going to have to make their case."
Sayfie pointed to Rubio's 2010 Senate campaign, in which he advocated major changes to Social Security and Medicare — though never as specifically as Ryan — and won.
"Ryan may push farther than Rubio did, but I say let's have the debate."
Many Republicans say voters are moving past an era when Social Security and Medicare were considered issues too risky for any politician to touch and survive.
"Democrats are going to try to show (Ryan) as a villain, and Republicans will try to make him the hero, because Medicare is such a disproportionately huge issue here," said Florida Republican political strategist Ana Navarro.
"But I think it can be dealt with. There's not one voter in Florida who doesn't agree that Medicare and Social Security are in trouble."
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who had urged Romney to pick Rubio, issued a statement saying Ryan's "command of economic policy and the federal budget will prove invaluable as Governor Romney fights to reform government, accelerate job growth and rein in out-of-control spending."
Still, in speeches at a Saturday campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., where Romney introduced Ryan, neither candidate mentioned the budget vision that is Ryan's trademark.
Romney said only, "We will preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security."
And Republicans acknowledged that Ryan won't help Romney in Florida as Rubio would have.
"Obviously, Rubio would have given him a home-field advantage in Florida and really energized Florida Hispanics," Navarro said.
Polling analyst Nate Silver, considered the nation's top survey number-cruncher, recently posted calculations on his New York Times blog suggesting Rubio would have boosted Romney by 2.3 percentage points in Florida — a major advantage in a typical razor-close Florida election.
Silver concluded Rubio would have done more to boost Romney's likely electoral vote total than any other running mate, while Ryan was 10th on the list with almost no effect.
Navarro did note that Ryan doesn't carry any "negative immigration baggage" — the stigma many Hispanics attach to Republicans who loudly advocate strict laws targeting illegal immigrants.
"He's a blank slate for most Hispanics in Florida, but there are no negatives," Navarro said.
Democrats will try to create some. In a flurry of news releases, competing with pro-Ryan releases from the Republicans, Democrats repeated the theme of tax cuts for the wealthy, enacted at the expense of the middle class and the elderly.
"Both Ryan and Romney want to end Medicare as we know it and implement budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthiest few — no matter the expense for the middle class or the consequences for our economy, said Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux.
Edward F. Coyle of the Alliance for Retired Americans, a liberal-oriented group, said the Ryan choice creates "the most anti-senior ticket ever."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Romney "doubled down on his commitment to take our country back to the failed policies of the past."