Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan delivers the key note address during the third day of the 2012 Republican national Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
TAMPA -- It is Paul Ryan's party now.
The 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman strode on stage at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night to a cheering welcome as he accepted the party's nomination as vice president and signaled the emergence of a more conservative, more combative generation of leaders who are reshaping the Republican Party.
Of course, it is the 65-year-old Romney who will be in the spotlight today at the convention's closing night and during the two-month campaign that follows. The outcome in November will depend on voters' judgment of him and President Obama, not on their running mates.
However, Ryan and the GOP "young guns" he helps lead, boosted by the Tea Party movement, are providing much of the energy in the grass-roots, the enthusiasm in the hall and the ideological stamp that has the GOP ticket playing offense on an issue such as Medicare, long seen by the party establishment as a snare certain to rebound to Democrats' advantage.
"We're a full generation apart, Gov. Romney and I," Ryan said in his speech to laughter. "And in some ways, we're a little different. There are songs on his iPod which I've heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators. He actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies. I said, 'I hope it's not a deal-breaker, Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.' ...
"A generation apart. That makes us different, but not in any of the things that matter."
'Where is the debt clock?'
A few hours earlier, Ryan had stopped by the convention hall to check out the stage and test out the teleprompter. By his side were his wife, Janna, their three young children and his older brother, Tobin.
"Where is the debt clock?" Ryan asked, looking around the arena for two digital screens that have been ticking the increase in the national debt since the convention opened. A series of speakers have used them as touchstones. "Oh," he said, spotting one. "It's up there."
The congressman and his family practiced waving to a nearly empty hall, a maneuver they would repeat when the arena was full. Liza, 10, tried to speak into the microphone on the podium. "It's not on," her father advised.
A few hours later, the microphone was on and the hall was jammed. When Ryan spoke, he referred to "the calling of my generation."
That was, he said, "to give our children the America that was given to us, with opportunity for the young and security for the old - and I know that we are ready. Our nominee is sure ready. His whole life has prepared him for this moment: to meet serious challenges in a serious way, without excuses and idle words. After four years of getting the runaround, America needs a turnaround, and the man for the job is Gov. Mitt Romney."
Dressed in a somber black suit and silver-blue tie, Ryan seemed a bit nervous and tentative at the start but spoke with increasing confidence as he continued. At one point, he paid tribute to his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, 78, who was sitting in the hall, prompting daughter Liza to give him a grin and a thumbs-up sign. By the end of a speech full of urgency over denying Obama a second term, the crowd roared its approval.
Many of the speakers who have sparked the strongest response from the convention audience have been relatively new officeholders, many of them in their 40s, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a recall election this year, got a hero's welcome.
They tend to talk less about compromising across party lines to get things done - an argument Romney has made about his tenure as governor of Democratic-dominated Massachusetts - and more about standing firm on principles even when it leads to pitched political warfare.
Cruz called the emerging party "a very exciting transformation" at a USA TODAY Newsmaker session. "One of the reasons Barack Obama got elected is because a lot of Republicans in Washington lost their principles," including exacerbating the federal deficit. "The single best consequence of Republicans getting our teeth kicked in in 2008 is it has produced a new generation of leaders for the Republican Party."
Cruz, 41, noted he was 10 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and 18 when he left the Oval Office. Reagan was the defining president for his generation of Republicans in the same way Franklin Roosevelt was for a generation of Democrats growing up during World War II, he said.
As for influential leaders now, he cited Sarah Palin, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2008. "A great many conservatives look to her judgment, look to her assessment of who will stand for principle," he said.
For McCain, polite applause
If Ryan represented the party's future, the program featured figures from its past.
The party's 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain received polite applause for a speech that included a call for tougher U.S. action to help democratic protesters in Iran and Syria.
The last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, appeared only in a nostalgic video tribute and joint interview that also aired Wednesday. Former vice presidents Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle were absent, though former Bush secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got an enthusiastic reception as she spoke about the need for robust national security policies.
However, the hall didn't seem fully energized until Ryan appeared on stage. While Palin's acceptance speech four years ago was full of defiance and emotion, Ryan's was laced with economic policy and principles - including a goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years - and blasts at Obama's leadership.
"College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life," he said at one point. At another: "None of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers."