On Monday afternoon, in his first solo appearance as Mitt Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., answered a question troubling more than a few Republican strategists: Will his campaign be more about the Romney plan for the economy, or the Ryan budget?
The answer is the Romney plan. In a speech before a rowdy crowd at the Iowa State Fair -- one that included some loud and determined hecklers -- Ryan stuck to the message of jobs, jobs, jobs. In about 12 minutes of high-energy remarks, the words "Medicare" and "entitlements" didn't even come up. Although press coverage focused mostly on the heckling and not what Ryan actually said, the new candidate was all about creating jobs and restoring prosperity, and not about reforming entitlements.
Noting that President Obama is campaigning in Iowa, Ryan told the crowd, "As you see the president come through on 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?' "
"We have people who are hurting in this country," Ryan continued. "People are hurting because we don't have jobs, families are hurting because they're living paycheck to paycheck, and the paychecks are not stretching as far as they used to. This is the worst economic recovery, if you want to call it that, in 70 years."
Ryan touched each point of Romney's five-point plan for "more jobs and more take-home pay." There was energy, education, trade, deficit cutting, and promoting small business. On each, Ryan hewed closely to the Romney script.
In his discussion of the deficit, Ryan said simply that we have to "stop spending money we don't have," but did not touch on restructuring Medicare or any other aspect of the Ryan budget.
Ryan's speech was an early indicator that the Romney campaign will not go out of its way to showcase the project to which Ryan has devoted the last few years of his professional life, which is his carefully thought-through plan to reform the nation's hyperexpensive entitlement system.
If that continues, we might see a campaign in which both Republican candidates seek to downplay their signature achievements -- Romney downplaying his Massachusetts universal health care program, and Ryan downplaying the Ryan budget.
Of course, just because Ryan stays away from the Ryan budget does not mean Democrats will, too. President Obama and his allies intend to bash the Republican ticket early and often about the Ryan plan. How much Romney and Ryan succeed in fighting Medicare to a draw and keeping the main focus on jobs will probably determine who wins the election.
Although most Republicans praised Romney for choosing Ryan, behind the scenes many are terrified by the possibility that Ryan's presence would elevate Medicare, instead of jobs, as a top issue. "This is fraught with peril that in a month we're still talking about Medicare, that we're in a World War I trench warfare on who's worst on Medicare," says one well-connected strategist. "That's not good."
"How do we make the No. 1 issue the No. 1 issue?" asks another strategist, referring to the economy.
Those Republican concerns were not allayed on Sunday when, a little more than 24 hours after revealing his choice, Romney sat down with Ryan for an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes." Other than news coverage of the Ryan announcement itself, it was the highest-profile chance so far for Romney to introduce his running mate. The interview went well -- except for the fact that the word "budget" was used twice as often as the word "jobs." (Ten mentions for "budget" versus five for "jobs.")
In addition, the two men famous for their devotion to data did not mention the most important number, by far, in the presidential race: 8.3, as in 8.3 percent unemployment.
Alarm bells went off in more than a few Republican strategists' brains. Now, after Ryan's solo debut, with its singular focus on jobs, they're a little less worried.
As Ryan was speaking at the fair, in another part of Iowa, top Obama strategist David Axelrod was telling reporters that Ryan is now the man in charge of the Republican campaign. Romney has "already anointed [Ryan] the intellectual leader of the Republican Party," Axelrod told RealClearPolitics, and therefore Romney will "take his cues from Ryan."
Ryan's performance in Iowa suggests just the opposite. The man at the top of the ticket is the boss, and Paul Ryan will take his cues from Mitt Romney, not the other way around.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.