CLINTON, Iowa — Vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan was all down-home humor and folksy charm as he wooed a crowd of about 350 people here on a crisp fall morning.
“I come from a town just two hours north of here,” said Ryan. “Janesville, Wisconsin. It looks just like this.”
He regaled the audience with family tales of grit and frugality, persistence and patience.
“This is the Midwest,” he said. “Save, don’t waste. Leave your children and grandchildren better off.”
Meanwhile, in back of the candidate, a giant “debt clock” kept racking up the numbers — more than $16 trillion in debt, with thousands more added every second.
This is the central message of the Republican campaign. Challenger Mitt Romney and his “budget wonk” running mate are trying their best to keep the campaign focused on the stagnant economy, the “jobless recovery,” and the mounting debt.
“We cannot afford four more years of this president!” said Ryan, to rousing applause. “We have to get the country going in a different direction!”
The hardy Iowans ate it up, mostly.
Paul Ryan speaks to voters in Clinton, Iowa.
“He was tremendous,” said Patricia Striley, a Clinton resident. “We just don’t have enough information about what is happening, and it is wonderful that we can come here and listen to Paul Ryan.”
Striley said she breakfasts every day with a group of elderly women who are scared to death about their future.
“They are panicked about Medicare,” she said emphatically. "There has been a lot of misinformation given out by the Obama campaign. People need to know that Romney and Ryan are going to take care of them.”
But Striley acknowledged that Romney and Rand had to get out in front of the story if they wanted to win in November.
“They are not doing enough to get their message out,” she said.
Her son, Todd Striley, who owns a construction company, agreed.
“Romney and Ryan have to step away from politics as usual if they want to win,” he said. “They have to fire up their campaign. They need to give us more details about their plans, more specifics.”
This was a theme sounded time and again by those in the audience who had come to see Ryan. In the main, they were leaning toward voting for the Republican ticket, but they were by no means sold.
“I have not voted yet,” said Dick McLane, a retired accountant also from Clinton. “It’s too early to tell what will happen.”
Iowa began early voting last week, the first battleground state to do so. Nearly 250,000 absentee ballots have been requested so far.
McLane may be holding back, but he says he feels that America needs a change.
“We are going to hell in a hand basket,” he said. “We are selling future generations into debt. I don’t even have children, but I still worry. We are putting our world leadership into jeopardy.”
But even with all of this, he is not willing to commit.
“I’ll wait until after the debate,” he said.
Romney will square off against president Barack Obama on Wednesday night in Denver, in the first of three debates. With Romney trailing in many polls, and his campaign in a bit of disarray, many observers feel it is a must-win for him.
More Highway 2012: Romney needs a knockout in Denver
“Wednesday’s debate is make or break for Romney,” said Striley. “He cannot afford to do badly.”
From Clinton, Ryan went south to Muscatine, a picturesque town right on the Mississippi River.
The crowd was not large; about 250 supporters heard his speech inside Elly’s Tea & Coffee House, while an overflow crowd of 35 to 50 listened to it outside on speakers.
One of the Iowans eager to see and hear the VP candidate was 92-year-old Evelyn Schauland, a former mayor of Muscatine, who seemed to know everyone in town. They all seemed just a bit in awe of her.
“I taught school for 50 years,” she laughed, after a man in his 70s gave her a respectful hug. “Of course they’re all grown up now, but they still remember.”
The man in question was State Senator Jim Hahn, who graduated from Muscatine High School in 1953.
“Romney and Ryan will carry Iowa,” he predicted confidently. “It is not a swing state. It had better be a red state!”
A lot would depend on the outcome of Wednesday’s debate, Hahn acknowledged.
His old teacher stepped in to reinforce the message.
“Romney has to come out and show us who he really is,” said Schauland. “He has not done that. To me he has not been strong enough.”
But Schauland supports the Republican ticket heart and soul. She is not a fan of the president, who, she said, is leading the country in the wrong direction, both economically and in terms of social policy.
“I don’t want to say what I really think,” she said. “It is not something for the newspapers.”
But she added that she adamantly opposes Obama’s health care plan.
“I want to be able to go to my own doctor and to the hospital I choose,” she said. “Do we socialize medicine? Absolutely not.”
Obama was not telling the truth to the American people, she said. “And I always told the children to tell the truth.”
Most of all, Schauland wants to feel comfortable in America again.
“We were such a wonderful country,” she said. “The best. We are losing all of that. I want a president who can bring us back. I hope Mitt Romney is that man.”