DES MOINES, Iowa — He talked about cow milking and demolition derby, but Rep. Paul Ryan's most pointed remarks Monday at the Iowa State Fair targeted President Barack Obama's economic leadership.
Facing thousands of cheering supporters lined along booths offering fried Oreos and pork chops, the newly tapped Republican vice presidential candidate accused Obama of "spending our children into a diminished future." Noting that the president had launched a three-day tour in Iowa that day, he gave Iowans a suggestion.
"As you see the president come through in his bus tour, you might ask him the same question that I'm getting asked from people all around America. And that is, `Where are the jobs, Mr. President?'" said Ryan, clad in jeans, cowboy boots and a red-and-white checkered shirt.
It was Ryan's first day campaigning alone as Mitt Romney's running mate, a role he assumed just two days earlier. The 42-year-old seven-term congressman quickly established himself as Romney's chief attack dog in the campaign to prevent Obama from winning a second term. But he also showed himself to be a lightning rod of sorts, generating huge excitement among conservatives and equally strong disdain from Democrats opposed to his plans to reshape Medicare.
While his reception was largely positive, protesters interrupted his brief fairground address several times. They chanted, "Stop the war on the middle class," and one woman climbed on stage with Ryan before security could drag her away.
"She must not be from Iowa," Ryan said as he tried to focus on his speech.
Later, as he raced through the fairgrounds with a mob of supporters and reporters in tow, one fairgoer shouted, "Do you really wanna cut Medicare?"
Ryan did not respond. In fact, he did not directly address his controversial budget plans at all during his debut in Iowa, a swing state Obama won in 2008.
Ryan is the architect of a plan approved by House Republicans that would set up a voucher-like system to let future retirees shop for private health coverage or choose a government plan modeled on the traditional program. Independent budget analysts say that would probably mean higher out-of-pocket costs for seniors.
Ryan shrugged off the hecklers.
"In Wisconsin we've been dealing with this sort of thing with these recall elections," he said. "It was an overwhelming crowd of support and it was exciting to do it. And I love coming to the fair."
Ryan declined to address Obama's charge that he was among House Republicans "standing in the way" of legislation designed to help the drought-stricken heartland. He said only that he would get into "those policy things later."
"Right now I just want to enjoy the fair," he said.
The Romney campaign issued a written statement on the issue: "The truth is no one will work harder to defend farmers and ranchers than the Romney-Ryan ticket," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. Ryan spokesman Michael Steel later blamed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid for blocking a farm aid bill endorsed by House Republicans.
The Republican-led House passed a short-term drought relief bill before Congress adjourned for a long summer break. Meanwhile, in the Democratic-controlled Senate, leaders pushed for a longer-term farm bill that includes the emergency aid. It cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote.
Some of the fairgoers, like 64-year-old attorney Bill Thomas of Indianola, said he wanted to hear Ryan address the subject directly.
"There's a lot of farmers here," Thomas said.
The political spotlight turned to Iowa because both campaigns see opportunity here in their battle for the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency. Romney finished in a near-tie for first place in the state's Jan. 3 caucuses. Obama won Iowa's Democratic caucuses four years ago and carried the state in the general election.
As Romney campaigned in Florida, Ryan worked to connect with Iowans on a personal level. He listed family members with strong Iowa connections and suggested he was in the presence of "kindred spirits."
"We are united as upper Midwesterners," the Wisconsin native declared, while jabbing the Vikings and Bears fans in the crowd. "I see a few Packer heads here."
Ryan's fair experience was brief and intense. There was no time for sampling pork chops or fried butter. He tried to make small talk and shake hands on the short walk to and from the stage where he delivered a 12-minute speech, but it was a hectic and crowded scene that made walking difficult at times.
Standing alongside Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Ryan told one fairgoer that he knew how to milk cows.
"We do cow milking contests in Wisconsin," he said, adding that he also likes demolition derbies.
Several people admitted that they didn't yet know Ryan.
"I think it's kind of cool that he's younger," said Josh Wandrey, 28, of Des Moines, who described himself as a religious conservative. "I hadn't heard of him."
Joe Church, a 56-year-old from Nichols, said he didn't vote for Obama four years ago and probably wouldn't this time. But he said he was concerned about Ryan's proposals for Medicare.
"I want something there when I have to draw," said the retired Heinz employee. "He's too much of an activist."