By selecting Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney sets up a big-picture presidential debate for the American public about the scope and size of government, the likes of which hasn't been honestly held since Ronald Reagan's candidacy.
High among the conservative praise for Ryan, who despite being only 42 years old has emerged as an economic intellectual leader on the Hill, is that he's been unafraid of putting GOP rhetoric down on paper. That's meant taking heat for making proposals for spending cuts to popular programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. But the Romney campaign has decided that voters are fed up enough with the growing federal deficit to handle the pain of what reining in spending would mean.
"I think Republicans wanted to have a debate on big issues and by picking Ryan that's what they got," says David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and former Republican political consultant.
Woodard, who recently authored Ronald Reagan: A Biography, says the Democratic reaction to Reagan's 1980 nomination is similar to that of the Ryan pick.
"Democrats were rubbing their hands and for a time Reagan was behind," he says. "But every once in a while voters like a big debate, are knowledgeable about the issues, and eventually change the direction of the country."
President Barack Obama's campaign and national Democrats have also embraced the ideological battlefield, banking on their belief that voters will support their argument that it's worth raising taxes on the most wealthy to help pay off the deficit. They have wasted no time in pointing out that both Romney and Ryan support lowering taxes on the most wealthy, something Democrats argue will balloon debt, not create more widespread economic prosperity as the GOP argues.
Like other conservatives, Woodard says the Ryan pick was a smart one for Romney.
"To me, in a lot of ways Romney really tied up several key voting blocs--middle-class voters and Tea Partyers," he says, adding that the GOP insiders and consultants he spoke to following the announcement were all enthusiastic.
While another name floated on the short list--Florida Sen. Marco Rubio--might have aided Romney's fight in that swing state, Woodard says the Republicans have a lock on the southern vote anyway.
"Ryan is the better of the two, in terms of his big ideas and what he brings," Woodard says. "There are 155 electoral votes in the South--only one state is in play after this decision and I don't think it's very much in play.'
That state is Virginia--which makes it not a coincidence that Romney chose it to roll out his new campaign partner.
Woodard says Ryan will help Romney bite into the percentage of wealthy, suburban voters that Obama is expected to dominate in the state thanks to his intellectual heft and political chops.
So why was Ryan not the obvious pick for Romney from the start? Woodard says it may be that he comes from the House of Representatives, which is not as high profile as being a governor or a senator.
"He's been a comer, jumping over people with more seniority to lead the House budget panel, and he's always been articulate," Woodard says. "There were also some questions about his political skills. But he reportedly campaigned pretty hard for the job, which shows he has some political skills and certainly ambition."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.