By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
JANESVILLE — Thousands of Paul Ryan supporters packed the Craig High School gymnasium, where the Wisconsin 1st District congressman and vice presidential candidate ran laps in gym class.
The supporters were there to send the hometown hero off to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
“It’s good to be home,” Ryan said as he took the stage to a two-minute standing ovation.
“This gym means so much. It’s so familiar. It’s just like all the gymnasiums around this country. And Janesville’s like that, it’s that kind of community.”
“I want to just tell you how proud I am to come from Janesville, Wisconsin,” Ryan said.
Judging from the cheers that emanated from the bleachers and gym floor, the feeling was mutual. Supporters lined up outside the school as early as 6 a.m. to get seats near the stage.
Three women – two self-described independents and a conservative – drove nearly an hour from Madison.
“We came down here to prove there are conservatives in Dane County,” joked Nancy Wild.
The women said they felt “proud” to see a fellow Wisconsinite make a bid for the White House. More important to them as voters, the women said, is Romney’s pledge to cut taxes and reduce regulation as a means to kick start economic recovery.
Judy Tollefson of McFarland wore classic Wisconsin accoutrement – a cheese-head hat more commonly seen at the Lambeau Field, modified with the words “Romney Ryan.” She held a pink, hand-made “WI Wants Ryan” sign.
They scoffed at what they see as the Democratic Party’s “war on women” rhetoric in the aftermath of Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment.
“We’re women,” said Dorothy Borchardt, a former member of the Madison City Council. “They tried the same thing with (Gov. Scott) Walker.”
Not everyone at the rally was a Paul Ryan fan.
Two protesters, reportedly elderly women, were tossed from the event for trying to shout Ryan down mid-speech.
Others picketed outside with signs opposing cuts to Medicare, a war with Iran and tax cuts for the “1 percent.”
Democrats contend a Romney-Ryan administration would benefit the wealthy while taking from the poor and middle class.
Ryan, as he has done since being named Romney’s running mate earlier this month, asserted that the GOP has a plan to put America back on track. But he focused more on life in Janesville than party policies.
He told the story of his Irish ancestors’ migration to America and Janesville.
“We all made a go of it. We all raised our families here. We’re fifth-generation Janesville, Wisconsin natives,” he said.
Ryan brought the nation’s tepid economic recovery close to home, recalling the company that defined the community.
“You know, we always used to say, as GM goes, so goes Janesville. Remember that statement?” he said, noting the automaker’s 2009 closure of a plant that made sport utility vehicles “You know what? We’ve been hit hard. We’ve been hard knocked. But we are hardy people and we will recover from this.”
The audience held silent as Ryan described friends who lost jobs at local plants, retrained and started new careers.
“That’s the kind of thing we need to do — pick ourselves up, help others in need, give them the job-training skills they have, flourish entrepreneurs and small businesses so they can get back on their feet. That’s exactly what the Romney plan for a stronger middle class is all about.”
Deborah Voigt, a small-business owner from Janesville, brought her daughter and mother to Ryan’s speech. She also brought with her a sign, “We Built This!” — a rebuttal to President Barack Obama‘s assertion that business owners didn’t build their businesses on their own.
“His attitude against small businesses absolutely is the number one thing that puts me against him,” Voigt said.
Ryan played up the GOP line, which Republicans believe is paying dividends before small-town crowds throughout America.
“I look around this room and I see an entrepreneur there, an entrepreneur there, an entrepreneur there. I see a business leader there, a job creator there, I see a job creator there,” said Ryan, pointing to faces in the crowd.
“Everywhere I look I see friends, I see community leaders, I see family members who get up early in the morning, who take risks, who work hard, who sacrifice,” he said.
Ryan touted Romney’s leadership at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital, and as governor of Massachusetts.
“When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, unemployment went down, incomes went up $5,000 and he reached across the aisle. He didn’t demonize Democrats, he worked with Democrats and he balanced the budget without raising taxes,” Ryan said.
Obama and Democratic leadership have blasted Romney and Bain Capital for closing plants and outsourcing jobs to China. The Obama campaign has defined Romney as a “corporate-buyout specialist.”
“And (Obama) said people in the Midwest, people like us, that we like to cling to our guns and our religion.
“All I got to say, from a guy who goes to St. John Vianney right over there, whose tree stand is six miles in that direction and that direction,” he said pointing, “this Catholic deer-hunter is guilty as charged and proud of that. That’s freedom.”
The conservative crowd erupted.
Contact Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org