In the land of his ancestors, Paul Ryan’s Irish charm is failing him.
Despite his name, Roman Catholic faith and immigrant-made-good family history, the Irish half of the Republican ticket is failing to win the allegiance of the old country from Barack Obama, a skilled hand at playing the Irish card.
Obama struck public relations gold last year by sharing a Guinness with a distant cousin in the village of Moneygall after an amateur genealogist traced his ancestors there. Pictures of cheering Irish crowds were beamed across the United States.
But 100 kilometers (60 miles) down the road, Ryan’s ancestral hometown is feeling the cold shoulder and like Ireland as a whole, most of the locals are rooting for his Democratic presidential rivals.
“He doesn’t have the charisma, he hasn’t connected with the people,” said Pat Nolan as he strolled passed the 13th century stone church in the village of Graiguenamanagh where Ryan’s great-great grandparents were married.
“It doesn’t matter what his name is, it’s Obama that has made the effort,” said Nolan, 62, a retired physiotherapist.
In a recession-hit town where almost a third of the shops on main street are vacant, Obama’s promise to secure more visas for Irish immigrants and help attract U.S. investment has struck a chord.
Ryan’s pitch to slash public spending does not go down so well in a country reeling from years of austerity imposed after crippling bank debt forced the government to take a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.
Despite the Ryan connection, few locals are hoping for a Republican victory across the ocean.
“It would give a boost to a nice small town like this, but I would forgo it. I wouldn’t want to inflict him on the American people,” said Margaret, a 64-year-old cashier, upset by Ryan’s plans to cut welfare and Medicare health cover for the elderly. She withheld her family name to avoid angering her employer.
A straw poll of 20 people on a recent afternoon found 12 Obama supporters and none for Ryan and running mate Mitt Romney.
Ninety-six percent of people in Ireland who have decided would back Obama and Irish Catholic running mate Joe Biden if they had a vote, according to a September poll of 1,000 people by Gallup International.
“He’s too far right-wing for this part of the world,” said Martin Brett, the former mayor of the county’s capital Kilkenny, who hosted Ryan’s uncle when he came to trace his roots in the region a few years ago.
But tight economic ties with the United States and a soft spot for Irish Americans could yet convince Ireland to embrace a President Romney and Vice President Ryan, he said.
“If they won, the invitations would be in the post,” Brett grinned.
As the country with the second-largest budget deficit in the European Union and recipient of an international bailout, Ireland is dangerous ground for Ryan, whose campaign is based on a promise to slash the United States’ fast-growing debt pile.
The Wisconsin congressman has not endeared himself to his kin by holding their country up as a cautionary tale of bad practice.
Ryan’s web site refers to Ireland 11 times, eight as an example of the economic doom facing the United States if it doesn’t address its budget deficit and three as a rival to the Cayman Islands as a tax haven threatening American jobs.
When Ryan told a crowd in his home state how his great grandfather had fled the Irish potato famine with just the shirt on his back, the crowd lapped it up.
But an Irish historian of the famine, John Kelly, rebuked him days later for espousing a laissez faire economic philosophy he said was strikingly similar to that of British policymakers whom many in Ireland blame for the deaths of millions.
Asked why Ryan appeared to have soft-pedalled his Irish heritage, Mike Steel, a Romney campaign official said in an email to Reuters: “He did address his family’s Irish immigrant roots at a rally in his hometown of Janesville, WI. He told a joke about his ancestors arriving in Janesville and saying “It looks just like Ireland … and then the winter came.”
While visiting an ancestral home in Ireland remains a rite of passage for U.S. presidents, with the last five claiming ties there, the power of the Irish vote has faded since it helped lift John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960.
Kennedy’s victory set up a triumphant homecoming three years later to a town 20 miles (32 km) from Graiguenamanagh.
The focus for U.S. political strategists nowadays has shifted to the wider Catholic community, which votes more as a block than the traditionally Democratic Irish, whose priorities have diverged as they integrated into American society.
But pockets of Irish Americans in the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania could still play an important role.
“The Irish Catholic vote went for (Democrat) Bill Clinton. It went narrowly for (Republican John) McCain over Obama. I’d say on this occasion it will be 50-50,” said Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the U.S. newspaper The Irish Voice.
“It’s a vote that tends to be a bellwether vote. If it swung decisively behind Obama, it would certainly mean that he would win the election,” O’Dowd said.
Romney’s choice of Ryan, just like Obama’s choice of Biden, was clearly influenced by targeting white Catholics, he said.
The lobby group Irish American Democrats says it is targeting Cuyahoga County in Ohio, a bellwether Irish area in a state where the election could be decided.
Ryan will find it far harder than Biden to take advantage of his Irish heritage, said Stella O’Leary, who heads the group.
“I find there is a kind of mild embarrassment on the half of Irish Americans who are Republicans,” she said. “They would all have originally have been Democrats, so the question is when did they change. Was it when they got a few dollars?”
The Republicans’ strongest card among Irish Catholics is their social conservatism, something used by Ronald Reagan, the most successful Republican in mobilising the Irish vote.
But Ryan and Romney are facing an election where social issues have not been dominant.
“It’s really all about Ohio. Both candidates are looking to gain footing any way that they can,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who said working-class Irish American Catholics were one group being targeted.
CHICAGO IRISH SCHOOL
Obama learned to play the Irish card when he was an Illinois senator scrambling for votes on the streets of Chicago.
A regular participant in Chicago’s St Patrick’s Day parade, Obama planned his triumphant trip to Ireland last year based on the work of a distant cousin and amateur genealogist, who tracked down the village where some of the president’s ancestors had lived.
By contrast, when retired anti-drugs officer Rick Barrett let the Ryan campaign know he had traced their candidate’s great-great grandparents’ homestead to near Graiguenamanagh, Republican staff made clear they didn’t have time to discuss it.
“He’s a numbers guy. He’s concentrating on the future of the country, but maybe he’s concentrating on that too much,” Barrett said. “Maybe needs to shake hands, pat a few backs and have a pint or two at an Irish bar.”