U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan got the Cuban exile seal of approval Saturday at a campaign rally in Little Havana where he pledged to hold a hard line against the Castro regime.
The Republican vice presidential candidate did not mention that he once opposed the U.S. trade embargo against the island, but he pointed to his change of heart — prompted by Miami’s current and former Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.
“They’ve given me a great education — lots of us in Congress — about how we need to clamp down on the Castro regime,” Ryan told supporters at the Versailles restaurant. “We will be tough on Castro, tough on [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez.”
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, has voted against the embargo at least three times. The Midwest tends to see trade opportunities in agriculture with Cuba.
Ryan began supporting the embargo in 2007 as he started to ascend the House Republican leadership ranks. And on Saturday he began criticizing President Barack Obama’s policies toward the island. The Obama administration has made it easier for families and certain groups to travel and send money to Cuba.
Ryan said he and GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney would take a different approach.
“We will not keep practicing this policy of appeasement,” Ryan said. “We will be tough on this brutal dictator.”
The crowd burst into applause. Hundreds of people packed the restaurant despite the strong morning rain showers, which left attendees drenched and forced organizers to move the rally into cramp quarters indoors.
Ryan couldn’t pose for the traditional outdoor photo-op ordering from the Versailles pick-up window. But he ordered a small cup of Cuban coffee inside, where he was joined by Ros-Lehtinen, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Craig Romney, Romney’s youngest son. Craig Romney, who was a Mormon missionary in Chile, speaks Spanish and is frequently featured in political advertisements for his father airing in Miami.
Bush, too, greeted the rally in Spanish, praising Romney’s family values, joking about the weather and teaching Ryan how to say rain shower in Spanish. ( Aguacera, Bush said, though technically the word is aguacero.)
“I’m sick and tired of an America that has a cloud of pessimism over it,” Bush said.
Abuzz with energy, the crowd broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” as Ryan posed for photographs and shook hands. A couple of protesters briefly interrupted his remarks, but they were drowned out by pro-Ryan cheers.
Ryan tried to make an argument against Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan of “hope and change,” slamming the president for telling Univision in an interview at the University of Miami earlier this week that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.”
“Why do we send presidents to the White House in the first place?” Ryan said as the audience laughed. “We send presidents to change and fix the mess in Washington. And if this president has admitted that he can’t change Washington, then you know what? We need to change presidents.”
And Ryan, who from Miami was headed to Orlando, stressed his ties to Florida, endorsing tarpon and bone fishing “in the back bay of Islamorada.” He introduced his mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, a snowbird who lives part of the year in Lauderdale by the Sea.
But the congressman steered clear about talking about Medicare — a key issue for elderly Florida voters. Ryan only mentioned Medicare twice, towards the end of his 10-minute speech, accusing Obama of cutting Medicare to pay for the president’s new healthcare law.
“We reject the fact that the president is compromising Medicare to pay for Obamacare,” Ryan said.
That statement is not quite accurate. The new healthcare law did not cut funding from Medicare’s budget but instituted changes to bring down future program costs.
Ryan has supposed revamping Medicare to provide a voucher-like option for future seniors to choose between a traditional Medicare plan or a private plan. Those 55 and older would keep receiving traditional Medicare benefits.
Ryan didn’t take questions from the news media after the event, but Bush told reporters that he’s not worried about the Republican ticket’s Medicare plans hurting Romney’s chances.
“I feel good,” Bush said. “I think Romney’s going to carry Florida.”
In Orlando, Ryan held a “Victory Town Hall” at the University of Central Florida late Saturday afternoon.
He criticized the Obama administration’s requirement that hospitals and universities, including Catholic ones, be required to offer contraception. He described it as an “assault on religious liberty.”
Ryan said Romney would reverse that decision if elected president.
The issue came up when a woman in the audience asked if Ryan would ask Vice President Joe Biden in their debate next month how he reconciles his views as a Catholic with the Democratic Party platform.
Ryan also condemned the Obama administration’s space program in central Florida, where thousands of jobs have been lost.
The Obama campaign quickly pounced on Ryan’s remarks, releasing a statement saying that Ryan had repeatedly voted against NASA funding and that the Romney-Ryan budget plan would cut funding for space exploration programs. They also accused Romney of “pandering to Florida voters by making empty promises about space.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.