By PATRICK O'CONNOR
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio?Rep. Paul Ryan said the presidential campaign, despite its contentious tone, is putting a focus on taxes and deficit cutting that could pave the way for a bipartisan overhaul if running mate Mitt Romney wins the White House.Andrew Spear for The Wall Street Journal
Rep. Paul Ryan speaking during an interview at Youngstown State University in Ohio on Saturday.
Mr. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, said a Romney administration would be able to work with Democrats to pass a tax overhaul, including Mr. Romney's plan for a 20% reduction in individual tax rates. But he said the GOP ticket wouldn't detail which tax breaks it wanted to scale back in order to prevent the tax cut from adding to the deficit, and that it was sufficient for Mr. Romney to lay out general principles.
"We shouldn't be negotiating the details of tax reform in the middle of a campaign," Mr. Ryan said in his first interview with a national newspaper since he debated Vice President Joe Biden last Thursday.
The Wisconsin congressman also said that Mr. Romney had asked him to take on the role of working with Congress on fiscal matters if he is elected vice president. "This is one of the reasons why he asked me to sign on" to the Republican ticket, said Mr. Ryan, who has championed plans to cut federal spending and overhaul entitlement programs from his post as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"It was because of my leadership and the reforms I'd been pushing that he asked me," Mr. Ryan said. "He said, 'I need help. I want your help to help me save this country from a debt crisis, to get this economy back on track.' "
Mr. Ryan, 42 years old, spoke on Saturday from the booth of a diner on the campus of Youngstown State University in Ohio, before addressing hundreds of people there as part of a two-day swing through the state. The interview came as the Romney campaign was making a renewed effort to gain support in Ohio, where polls show the GOP ticket continuing to lag behind slightly amid its surge in the national polls.
That improved poll standing came after Mr. Romney's strong debate performance Oct. 3 against President Barack Obama. The two candidates spent Sunday preparing for their second debate, to take place Tuesday night in Hempstead, N.Y.
Mr. Ryan amplified in the interview some of the thinking he had laid out on deficits, tax changes and entitlements in his own debate with Mr. Biden. The White House race is turning in large measure on competing visions of how to rein in the deficit and bolster economic growth, with Mr. Romney promising rate cuts for individuals and businesses and the president pledging to keep rates where they are for most Americans while rolling back Bush-era tax cuts for families who earn more than $250,000.
Messrs. Romney and Ryan have laid out three broad principles as part of their plan to lower tax rates by 20% on individuals and by 10 percentage points on businesses: Don't increase the deficit, don't raise taxes on middle-income taxpayers and don't reduce the share of taxes paid by higher-income Americans.
The Obama campaign has criticized Messrs. Romney and Ryan for declining to tell voters which deductions they would scrap in order to lower rates without adding to the deficit. Mr. Ryan defended that stance.
"What we've learned from experience?Mitt's experience as governor, my experience doing tax law?is that you don't go to Congress and say, 'Take it or leave it; here's my plan?pass it,' " Mr. Ryan said. "You say, 'Here's my framework, here's my objectives. Now, let's figure out together how to accomplish these objectives.' That's how you maximize the possibility of getting things done."
Mr. Ryan didn't answer directly if he could accept a proposal that raises tax revenue, provided it was coupled with lower marginal rates and cost savings from entitlement programs.
"It's not as if Republicans haven't offered this before," he said, mentioning a plan offered last year by Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) that would have raised $300 billion in new revenue over 10 years while lowering rates and scaling back deductions mainly on higher-income households.
Mr. Ryan quickly added, "But we think the best way to raise revenues is to grow the economy."
The Obama campaign says Messrs. Romney and Ryan couldn't find enough tax deductions on higher-income taxpayers to eliminate in order to fully pay for their proposed 20% cut to existing tax rates. It says the GOP ticket would also scale back tax breaks for middle-income families, giving them a net tax increase.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are hiding the specifics of their tax plan, because the math doesn't add up without a middle-class tax hike, plain and simple," said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, in response to Mr. Ryan's comments.
Mr. Kanner added that "any other explanation for their evasiveness just doesn't pass the laugh test."
Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, Mr. Ryan will hold tremendous sway either from the executive branch or the House of Representatives over fellow Republicans as the two parties work to craft a deficit-reduction plan that could include changes to taxes and entitlement programs.
Before year-end, Congress and the president will be forced to confront a series of tax cuts that are set to expire right as billions in automatic spending cuts take effect.
Despite the increasingly bitter tone of the White House race, Mr. Ryan expressed optimism that the two parties would come together if his ticket won the race, arguing the overhauls he and Mr. Romney are pushing have historically garnered Democratic support. He cited the Medicare overhaul plan he co-authored with Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, which would give beneficiaries the choice between traditional Medicare and subsidized private insurance. He also pointed to the so-called Simpson-Bowles commission on debt and deficits that recommended cutting tax rates and reducing deductions, although Mr. Ryan, a commission member, voted against that recommendation.
"We have a history of bipartisan consensus on these major reforms that we think are necessary to prevent a debt crisis to grow the economy. It's just that we have a huge barrier right now to realizing that?President Obama. Harry Reid is also part of that barrier," said Mr. Ryan, referring to the Senate Democratic leader.
Campaigning in Youngstown, at a town hall-style meeting, Mr. Ryan displayed a mix of the wonky attention to detail that has won him wide praise from conservatives and the Midwestern roots the Romney campaign hopes will appeal to voters in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. He talked about fishing for walleye and cracked jokes about the Midwest, while walking the audience through a PowerPoint presentation that illustrated the country's mounting debt.
The Romney campaign is drawing on Mr. Ryan's reputation as a budget expert as part of a renewed emphasis recently on deficit cutting, an issue of particular concern to swing voters. On Sunday, the campaign released a new TV ad that contrasts footage of Mr. Biden smiling and laughing in last week's debate with Mr. Ryan earnestly saying: "We can't just keep spending money we don't have." The ad's tagline says the GOP ticket offers "serious leadership."
Mr. Ryan accepted the nomination in August to cheers from fiscal and social conservatives. In the months since, he has canvassed the country for votes and campaign contributions, maintaining a rigorous travel schedule that keeps him away from his home in Janesville, Wis., at least six days a week.
"I told the campaign when I got picked, I need to be with my family at least one day a week. I want Sundays at home as best as possible, so I can go to Mass and watch the Packers," he said, referring to his home state's NFL team.
Still, he said, he had signed up for an online package so he could watch Packers games on his computer when he is on the road. Because he was scheduled to be on the road Sunday, the congressman and his wife, Janna, had pulled their kids out of school last week to spend time together at the debate site in Kentucky.
Mr. Ryan has served in Congress for nearly 14 years, but he has never faced scrutiny like he has seen in this presidential race, with critics challenging not only his budget math but also pointing out that he understated his finishing time in a marathon.
"The way I look at this is, they can't say you're unintelligent, they can't say you're mean and evil," he said. "So, they're just going to say you're dishonest."
He added, "My guess is they're going to call us liars for the next month."
Mr. Ryan also said he dismisses polls that suggest the Republican ticket trails Mr. Obama in a handful of swing states, including Ohio. "The debates have changed the dynamics of the race," he said.
He also expressed relief that he survived his turn under the brightest lights in politics, with his debate performance last week.
"I had probably the best night's sleep I've had last night in a few weeks," he said. "I slept like a log. It was great."
Write to Patrick O'Connor at Patrick.firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared October 15, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Ryan Says GOP Win Would Spur A Tax Deal.