HIGH POINT, N.C. – The 2012 presidential campaign now has its X factor.
At 42, Paul Ryan is the first national candidate clearly on the GenX side of the generational line, closer in age to teen Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas than he is to 69-year-old Joe Biden, the man Ryan wants to replace as vice president.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney's choice of the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate complicates for both parties a cross-generational argument that has largely been swinging between 20-something Millennials and seniors older than 65.
And it has sharpened the 2012 debate over the way Americans retire, get health care and care for the disadvantaged — and who pays for it. Substantively and symbolically, Ryan does this in a way that perhaps no other politician could have.
"Every generation faces its test," Ryan said at a rally here Sunday. "This is our generation's test. And when a country is facing a test like this, it's when a country so desperately needs leadership."
Romney said at the same rally that in 14 years in the House of Representatives, Ryan has realized there are "honest differences between honest people."
"He went there to change minds, to find people across the aisle that he could work with," Romney said. "He has a plan, for instance, for Medicare to make sure we can save Medicare."
Democrats, however, say Ryan's plan is to ultimately do away with Medicare (explain this). This swift back-and-forth just since Saturday's announcement illustrates how the choice of Ryan has turned the 2012 election from a referendum on an incumbent president, Barack Obama, running in tough economic times, into a choice between two very different ideas about the size, role and expectations of government in the 21st century.
The outcome of this election still hinges heavily on seniors, who in polls have marginally supported Romney and tend to have the highest turnout in elections, and on the Millennials, those generally younger than 30 who in 2008 overwhelmingly favored Obama. Polls show that they still heavily support the president, but young voter turnout tends to be unreliable.
The GenXers born in between — a group Obama narrowly won over John McCain in 2008 — now have their first clear member on a national ticket. Sarah Palin, born in 1964, was on a line of disagreement about where Boomers end and Xers begin. In 2008, voters ages 30-49, which generally correlates with the broad definition of Xers, amounted to 39 percent of the vote.
Ryan represents a new breed of politician willing to rewrite New Deal and Great Society promises. He favors limited-government solutions that might go beyond even those of Ronald Reagan, whom Ryan often quotes but was too young to ever vote for. His plan to cut federal spending by $5.3 trillion over the next decade and to gradually convert Medicare to a government subsidized program instead of a government-run one have long made him both a darling of the right and a target of the left.
Democrats argue that the Ryan plan will hurt the GOP ticket in states with a heavy concentration of seniors, particularly electorally vital Florida.
Ryan, asked about those predictions in an interview with “60 Minutes” Sunday night, invoked his mother — and his generation.
"My mom is a Medicare senior in Florida," he said. "Our point is we need to preserve their benefits, because government made promises to them that they've organized their retirements around. In order to make sure we can do that, you must reform it for those of us who are younger."
Many Democrats publicly say they are salivating over this new target; indeed, efforts to paint Ryan as a callous extremist who favors the rich over the poor and the old began within minutes of him being named to the ticket.
David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, on Sunday called Ryan's plan a "Trojan Horse" that "is going to drive the cost of health care up" and destroy Medicare.
Ryan is neither the youngest, nor the most obscure, Republican vice presidential candidate of recent vintage. Those labels belong to Dan Quayle and Palin, the 1988 and 2008 nominees, respectively, whose addition to the tickets of George H. W. Bush and John McCain created story lines about their lack of substance that both nominees would come to regret.
Obama and his Democratic allies are attacking Ryan from the opposite angle: as the young wonk gone bad, the architect and apostle of Republican destructive policies. But Romney hopes that the Xer at his side will personify an unwillingness to pass the nation's dangerous debt and deficit problems onto future generations.
Critics say Ryan does nothing to attract Millennials while raising doubts among seniors.
"Even though older members of the press corps will call him youthful, (Ryan) holds no attraction for the 20-somethings in this election," said Morley Winograd, who worked in the Clinton administration and who has, with Mike Hais, co-authored two books on Millennials. He said Ryan is part of a "reactive" GenX demographic that "fell in love with the Reagan presidency and (have) been trying to whittle down government ever since."
Millennials, by contrast, are a "civic" generation who believe government can solve problems, Winograd said in explaining why he thinks Ryan will have little appeal.
What about seniors? "Every one of them is on Social Security and Medicare, and so Ryan and Romney go out of their way to point out their plans for reforming those programs won't touch what the seniors already have," Winograd says. "Are (seniors) ready to start that inter-generational warfare by siding with the Gen Xer Ryan's ideas?"
Sam Spencer, president of the Young Democrats of North Carolina who worked on Biden's presidential campaign in 2008, said Ryan's opposition to abortion, plans to cut education loans and other issues will make young voters "more turned off by Paul Ryan's policies than they are turned on by his age."
But younger Americans who like the choice say Ryan's age and reputation as a policy powerhouse give Republicans a fresh plea for voters their age who are having trouble finding jobs and are becoming aware of the debt being heaped on their generation.
Ryan has worked to grow the number of young leaders in the House as a co-founder of the Young Guns Program — a group of mostly 30- and 40-something Republicans, some of whom have embraced the Tea Party movement.
"He is not that far away from us generationally, in terms of major national politicians, in terms of the way he looks and talks and relates," said Max Eden, 23, a 2011 graduate of Yale who volunteered for Obama in 2008.
‘A Leader’ on Fiscal Policy
But Eden became disillusioned in a "summer of discontent" in 2010 when he saw classmates unable to get jobs. He now works for a Republican congressional candidate in Arkansas after unsuccessfully leading a student draft to get Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican budget hawk, to run for president.
Paraphrasing economic historian Niall Ferguson, Eden said that "any young person who is at least mildly interested in our fiscal situation would have to be a Tea Partier. Paul Ryan symbolizes that," Eden said. "He has become, intellectually, a leader on this issue." He said Ryan "is one of the few people who have been able to take the fiscally conservative argument and put it into a two-minute Facebook video, and for that reason alone I am thrilled with this choice."
Jay Zeidman, a co-chair of Maverick PAC, a Republican political action committee aimed at young professionals, said his group has seen an increase in Web traffic and sign-ups since Romney announced his selection. The 29-year-old said Ryan not only appeals to young voters because he's young and energetic, but because he has the ability to start the conversation about entitlement reforms with a new generation of voters.
"He translates why it will matter to us," Zeidman said.
Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser to the YG Action Fund, a conservative super PAC, said Ryan's appeal is both style and substance.
"He's the guy you'd see walking around the House, his ear buds in, listening to Led Zeppelin one minute — and then the next he is grilling Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on a complex budget issue," Dayspring said.
Ryan's introduction brought out enthusiastic crowds at Romney weekend events in Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin, countering recent criticisms that Romney's campaign had lacked focus and been hurt by the candidate's blunders.
The campaign estimated 8,000 showed up for a Saturday rally in Manassas, Va., in a pivotal area of what will be a critical swing state in November. People waited in line for hours, stood on chairs and climbed atop portable toilets to see Romney and Ryan.
‘The Next Generation’
In a Sunday rally in Waukesha, Wis., Mary Biland, 55, a homemaker from Racine, arrived wearing American flag sunglasses, an American flag necklace, and a T-shirt emblazoned, "I like being conservative." She said Ryan "represents the next generation in the Republican Party and what America needs to be."
In choosing Ryan, Romney, 65, passed over more established Baby Boomers such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, both appealing in Midwestern swing states.
Ryan comes from the same region as those two, and emphasized his Middle America background in the first two days on the trail, and how it helped shape him after his father died when he was a teenager.
"Janesville, Wis., is where I was born and raised, and I never really left it," he said in Norfolk, Va. "It's our home now."
Ryan is 6-foot-2, lean, with a clip of Wisconsin in his voice. He has been described as a workout fiend, and his energy and age — along with a young family — would automatically enhance the generational themes that imbue every campaign.
But his 27-year age gap with Biden will be striking when they debate in October. In Biden, the Democrats have a senior citizen messenger who can carry the attacks on Ryan and Romney to his own age cohort. By contrast, Ryan gives Republicans a youthful messenger who comes from a generation that will bear many of the costs of today's decisions.
—Contributing: Kevin McCoy in New York; Ben Jones of Gannett in Wisconsin.
This story first appeared in USA Today.