Oxford, Ohio

Paul Ryan stepped onto the stage at a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on August 11, the day Mitt Romney named him his running mate, and wiped away a few tears. “Hi, Mom!” Ryan said, his voice slightly choked up as he looked out into a sea of 10,000 faces, including hundreds of family members and friends.

With Mitt and Ann Romney standing behind him, the 42-year-old Ryan regained his composure and erased any doubt that a man who’d never won statewide office was ready for a national campaign. “Here’s our choice: Do we want that opportunity society with a safety net?” Ryan asked, holding a microphone but no notes. “Or do we want to go down the path of debt, doubt, and despair? Do we want to copy Europe?”

“No!” the crowd yelled in unison with Ryan. “It’s going to take leadership. It’s going to take courage. It’s going to take another election just like we had in 2010 to get this right,” Ryan said. “And when we do, we will look back at this moment .  .  . as the day when our generation turned it around so our children could have a better future.”

The seven-term Wisconsin congressman has a reputation as a budget expert lost in the policy weeds. But during his nationally televised speech in Waukesha, Ryan revealed to the country that he’s also a good retail politician who is capable of making a big-picture—and moral—case against debt, deficits, and President Obama’s willful neglect of this looming crisis.

Mitt Romney knew that this was exactly the candidate he was getting when he tapped Ryan to be his running mate. The two men developed a rapport while campaigning together at town hall meetings, a setting in which Ryan thrives, during the run-up to the April 3 Wisconsin GOP presidential primary.

Since unveiling his Medicare-reforming budget, Ryan has fielded just about every hostile question imaginable about it at two dozen hour-long meetings with voters in Wisconsin. The sessions were recorded on video by Democratic trackers, but the operatives never captured a single clip of Ryan rattled or stumped.

Ryan was able to effortlessly transition to the presidential campaign because he’s been running a national campaign promoting his budget for the past two years. When two protesters charged the stage at the Iowa State Fair the day after the Waukesha event, Ryan was unfazed. “It’s funny, because Iowans and Wisconsinites, we like to be respectful of one another,” Ryan said with a smile. “These ladies must not be from Iowa or Wisconsin.”

Ryan’s swing state vice presidential tour brought him to many places where he had a personal connection. On August 14 in Colorado, where Ryan has hiked and fished with his family for two decades, he told the crowd of all the “brookies and rainbow” he’s caught and the “fourteeners”—mountains of 14,000 feet or more—he’s been climbing for 20 years. On August 15 at Miami University of Ohio, Ryan’s alma mater, he talked about his favorite local food and the time he was hurt at the ice rink down the street. “That’s why I have a cleft chin—14 stitches playing hockey right over there.” And then Ryan started landing punches against President Obama.

“The president, I’m told, is talking about Medicare today,” Ryan told the crowd in Oxford, Ohio. “We want this debate. We need this debate. And we will win this debate.” Ryan hit Obama for “raiding” $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. “Take a look at your paycheck next time. Look at that line on your paycheck that [reads] payroll taxes,” Ryan said. “You see, our payroll taxes from our paychecks are supposed to go to two programs—Social Security and Medicare, period. Now, because of Obamacare, they’re also going to pay for Obamacare.” The crowd booed. “It’s not right. He knows it. He can’t defend it.”

The Medicare issue was supposed to be the downfall of the Romney-Ryan campaign but, for now, Republicans seem to be successfully turning the issue against Obama. The Obama campaign is on defense—it certainly didn’t want the words “Obama’s Medicare cuts” and “Obamacare” to be the at the center of the debate. And the Romney-Ryan Medicare message already seems to be penetrating.

While Ryan was placing an order at the Original Hot Dog Shoppe in Warren, Ohio, on Thursday, an elderly woman yelled to get Ryan’s attention.

“Hey, Paul!” she shouted. “Good luck! Kick ass!”

Erma, from Howland, Ohio, the senior citizen urging on Ryan, said she wasn’t concerned Ryan and Romney would end Medicare as we know it. “I don’t believe it,” she told me. “Because Obama has a bigger plan to rob Medicare of $617 billion.”

“Oh, don’t believe none of that stuff,” Eleanor Costantino, another senior citizen at the hot dog shop, told me when I asked her if she was worried about Romney-Ryan taking away Medicare. “It’s all nothing but a bunch of lies!”

“He’s going to save Medicare,” chimed in Eleanor’s friend Karen Combs from Cortland, Ohio. “There’s $700 billion under Obamacare coming out of Medicare, and seniors should be more frightened over that.”

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.