COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Paul Ryan, having triumphed over a powerful field to win the Republican vice presidential nomination, squared off Saturday against his latest opponent: an 11-year-old.
The game: a bean-bag toss game.
The venue: a tailgate party outside an Ohio State football game.
The reason: politics — and maybe a little fun.
Football fans abandoned their barbecues to glimpse the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman underhand red bean bags toward a plywood box. And after four tosses, 6th grader Zachary Wymer was ahead by a point. Ryan didn't seem to mind.
His staff said he visited Ohio Stadium Saturday simply to watch Ohio State's season opener against his alma mater Miami University of Ohio. But in the world of presidential politics, a football game is never just a football game.
As Ryan flipped burgers and teased fans, he also accomplished something the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney struggles to do on his own: connect with working-class voters. Ryan didn't make any formal remarks. But the posed for pictures with fraternity brothers and gleefully shouted the Ohio football battle cry, "O-H!" as excited fans responded "I-O!"
His mere 15 minute presence at a tailgate — a time-honored tradition in the football-crazed presidential battleground state of Ohio — was meant to send a strong signal to voters and enhance the Republican ticket's "regular guy" credentials in a state that could decide who wins the White House. Vice President Joe Biden was in Ohio on Friday and President Barack Obama — who voters consistently describe as more likable than Romney — visits the state Monday.
The president, for his part, also engaged in some regular-guy politics Saturday.
As he campaigned in Iowa, the White House made public the recipe for two homemade beers that have become an object of fascination for beer drinkers everywhere. Being identified as a beer drinker is an easy way for Obama to connect with voters and serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that Romney, a Mormon, doesn't drink.
A successful businessman and a multi-millionaire many times over, Romney has labored to connect with his audiences — particularly the working-class ones.
It's a contrast to Ryan, who has spent the three weeks since being named to the GOP ticket showcasing his Midwestern charm and ease with people.
"We raised him that way," declared Ryan's mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, as she trailed her son through the crowd on his third visit to this state in as many weeks. "That's the way our family operates. Very caring."
It seemed at least one voter got the intended message loud and clear.
"He's just a regular guy," said Alyssa Culp, an 18-year-old freshman at Miami University. "He really talks to the younger generation."
On the other side of the state, Romney tried to use a sports metaphor to connect with voters in his own way on Saturday — the first weekend of the college football season.
"Let me tell you, if you have a coach that is zero and 23 million, you say it's time to get a new coach," Romney said during a Cincinnati rally, making a reference to the 23 million Americans who are unemployed. "It's time for America to see a winning season again and we're going to bring it to them."
A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about whether Romney planned to watch any of the day's games, follow the score of any particular matchup or had a team that he backs.
Spokesman Kevin Madden said staffers had been talking to him about the day's match-ups.
Romney attended Stanford and Brigham Young University, both of which have football teams. He was raised in Michigan, where the University of Michigan and Michigan State are football rivals. Campaigning earlier this year in New Hampshire, a voter asked him which of his home state teams he was backing during ongoing college football season.
"I'm for both Michigan and Michigan State these days," Romney said then.
Back in Columbus on Saturday, Ryan wasn't shy about declaring his support for his Miami University alma mater.
Once inside the stadium, he visited the team's locker room and offered players a brief pep talk before they took the field against heavily-favored Ohio State. He even challenged some Ohio State fans outside the game by shouting, "Go Miami!"
Centerville, Ohio, resident Susan Hoying said she appreciated the Ohio connection.
"He's okay. Even if he's from Wisconsin," joked Hoying, a 50-year-old General Electric employee and Ohio State season ticket holder. "That's still a Big 10 school."
"There's a connection. People here get it," she said.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Cincinnati and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.