TAMPA, Fla. -- Paul Ryan's prime time convention speech Wednesday night was one of the few remaining opportunities to make a sweeping case for the type of political philosophy that he and Mitt Romney have pledged to sweep into the White House.
But instead of opting for the "serious" and "truth-telling" approach that has defined his politics during Barack Obama's presidency, the newly minted vice presidential nominee played it straight. His comments were well received among the packed crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum -- though short of ripping up a copy of the Constitution or mocking Ronald Reagan, the audience would have shrieked with delight at his every utterance. But the speech was filled with far more bromides and attack lines than proposals or details.
[A] Romney-Ryan administration will speak with confidence and clarity. Wherever men and women rise up for their own freedom, they will know that the American president is on their side. Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known.
President Obama is the kind of politician who puts promises on the record, and then calls that the record. But we are four years into this presidency. The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it, not the economy as he envisions it, but this economy as we are living it.
This is standard practice for any convention speaker. After all, the audience can't be left bored. The television viewer can't be tempted to turn the dial. And tradition holds that the vice presidential candidate occupy the role of attack dog. Ryan, thrust into the biggest spotlight of his career, admirably played the part.
"Obamacare comes to more than 2,000 pages of rules, mandates, taxes, fees, and fines that have no place in a free country," he said, to rousing cheers of "USA."
"College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," Ryan offered to laughter and applause.
But at times, the lines strained basic notions of fairness or logic, like when he pinned the blame on Obama for failing to resuscitate a GM plant from Ryan's hometown of Janesville, Wis., that had actually closed under President George W. Bush. Or when he attacked Obama for losing America's AAA credit rating when it was the political shenanigans of House Republican leadership that played an equal if not more damaging role.
Ryan said Obama created a debt commission and then "sent them on their way," while "doing exactly nothing." He failed to mention that he sat on the commission and voted against its report. Ryan also attacked Obama for cutting "hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare," without noting that his own budget proposal incorporated those same cuts, ostensibly to pay for tax cuts or deficit reduction.
More broadly, it seemed odd to see a self-described budget wonk cast as Sarah Palin. That's because even Ryan's colleagues envisioned him giving a different type of address, one that combined textbook fluency and smooth oratory to win the argument on the merits.
"What will be great about his speech at the convention is that it will give him 30 to 40 minutes of unedited, opportunity to speak to the country," Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) predicted in a short hall interview with The Huffington Post shortly before his speech. "It is not going to be talking points. It's going to be a detailed speech."
Instead, the speech was a carnivore's delight, as well as another example of how campaigns, staged at every angle and degree, end up whitewashing the politicians who wage them. All of which may explain why the most memorable moments of the Wednesday convention docket (outside of Ryan's speech) came from eccentric characters or those relatively new to such forums.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demonstrated surprising acumen for delivering a national political address, winning over the crowd with a moving story about her life growing up under Jim Crow laws in the South. Explaining that her parents couldn't take her to a movie theater or a restaurant, she added that they still made her believe that "even though she can't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter -- she can be president of the United States and she becomes the secretary of state."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose father's legion of followers have become a guerilla force inside the convention hall, scored one of the biggest applause lines for declaring that "we must never -- never -- trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security."
And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee worked to assure religious voters who may still be squeamish about Romney's conservative credentials or Mormon religion. "I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country," he said.
But, even if he played it straight, Ryan took over the show. With his mother, wife and kids looking on, he silenced his inner wonk and brought the crowd to its feet.
"The work ahead will be hard," he boomed. "These times demand the best of us -- all of us -- but we can do this. Together, we can do this."