“From the beginning when we polled, we found that the Ryan plan was the most toxic political document ever, but the problem was you couldn’t convince voters that any politician would actually support it,” Mr. Burton said. “Now this actually makes the job easier.”
Stanley B. Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said that surveys showed attacks on the Ryan plan moved voters dramatically, adding that Mr. Romney could no longer dance around it. “There is no longer a nuance to that debate,” he said. “There are a lot of white, working-class voters, particularly older ones, who will walk away now, even if tempted earlier by the slow economy.”
Mr. Obama has long suffered from a sizable generation gap. In 2008, he did poorest among those 60 and older, winning the votes of 47 percent of them compared with 66 percent of voters under 30. With polls showing younger voters less enthusiastic and less likely to turn out this year, Mr. Obama’s campaign has struggled to win over seniors, who are much more reliable voters.
John Rother, president and chief executive of the National Coalition on Health Care, an advocacy group, said older voters drifted even further away from Mr. Obama during the 2010 midterm elections after Republicans attacked the Medicare cuts incorporated into his broader health care program.
“Now, Democrats can run practically the same ad accusing Ryan of proposing a plan that would ‘gut Medicare’ and shift costs to seniors,” Mr. Rother said.
The Romney camp said Democrats were fooling themselves. “The race is now framed exactly as we want it,” said Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser. “Voters are going to judge our current struggling economy and President Obama’s lack of leadership on that issue very harshly, and then look at a Romney-Ryan ticket as an opportunity to take the country in a bold new direction towards a better future.”
The looming clash reflects an intriguing evolution from just two years ago, when Mr. Obama expressed a grudging admiration for Mr. Ryan, another young politician with big ideas. Asked in the fall of 2010 which Republicans he could envision working with in the next Congress, Mr. Obama mentioned only one who would still be around, Mr. Ryan.
He said Mr. Ryan was “absolutely sincere about wanting to reduce the deficit,” though he quarreled with his approach. “I give him credit for at least being willing to put out there some tough choices,” Mr. Obama said, “although, as I said, even there, the numbers don’t quite match up the way they should.”
What Mr. Obama found appealing, the notion of a man of ideas willing to make tough choices, is what he now will need to devalue him. While Democrats openly crowed that Mr. Ryan was the choice they had hoped for because of the sharp contrast, they acknowledged he is a young, attractive, well-spoken politician who explains his plan better than his fellow Republicans do. If he makes the issue the national debt that has risen so much under Mr. Obama, rather than his solution for it, Mr. Ryan could pose a serious challenge to the president.
In other words, to put the bull’s-eye on Mr. Ryan’s back, Mr. Obama will first have to get it off his own.