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Van Hollen gains unexpected role in Obama campaign

Even as he campaigns for re-election to Congress, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has been tapped by the Obama campaign to help lead the Democratic rebuttal to Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — a role that is taking him to battleground states around the nation.

When Ryan hit the campaign trail last month with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Van Hollen was giving national interviews criticizing the Wisconsin lawmaker's budget proposals.

The Montgomery County Democrat has traveled to the swing states of New Hampshire and North Carolina to speak against Ryan's plans to cut taxes, slash spending and overhaul entitlement programs — turning Medicare, for example, into a voucher program.

He was in Tampa last week to join the Democratic response to the Republican National Convention. And after the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, where he will be a speaker, he'll help Vice President Joe Biden prepare for his October debate with Ryan — including standing in for the Republican during practice sessions.

The work is an extension of the clashes he has had with Ryan the past two years on the House budget committee. Ryan chairs the panel; Van Hollen is the top Democrat.

An Obama campaign spokeswoman said Van Hollen's "economic expertise" makes him "an incredibly effective surrogate for the president."

"There are few better at explaining the choice we face in this election," spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said.

Van Hollen called Ryan's approach a return to "a failed Bush trickle-down economic theory."

"We know that at the end of eight years of the Bush administration, we lost net private-sector jobs and the only thing that went up was the deficit," he said. "It's hard to see how the American people would choose to return to an economic policy that failed the country and ran the economy into the ground."

Van Hollen, 53, says he gets along "very well personally" with Ryan, 42. Shortly after they assumed their positions on the budget committee last year, they met for dinner.

"We talked about family, we talked about our background, and we talked about policy issues," Van Hollen said. "We recognized that we have these very deep, deep differences on policy matters, but we resolved that we would express those in a civil way."

Ryan has spoken of Van Hollen as a worthy adversary.

"He's probably one of the best articulators of the Democrats' position ... but he does it without being too partisan," Ryan told The Baltimore Sun last year. "He keeps the level of debate where it ought to be — at a high level."

When Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, Van Hollen called his committee colleague to offer congratulations.

"I left a message saying I hadn't realized we'd be talking as much about the budget for the remainder of the year," he said, and laughed. "I had been looking forward to a somewhat quieter August."

The extra work comes on top of the campaigning Van Hollen is doing for his own re-election in Maryland's newly redrawn 8th Congressional District.

The five-term congressman, who took more than 73 percent of the vote in the liberal, Montgomery County-based district as it was drawn in 2010, has been introducing himself to the new constituents he has gained in more conservative Carroll and Frederick counties.

Redistricting has narrowed the Democratic edge in the new 8th District, where Van Hollen faces Republican Ken Timmerman, a conservative author, in November.

Between his swing-state forays for the Obama campaign, Van Hollen has breakfasted with small business owners in Westminster and shaken hands at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. When he returns from the Democratic convention, he's due to attend Frederick's In the Street fair.

Van Hollen is used to such election-season multi-tasking. He ran the House Democrats' national campaign operation during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, and continues to make appearances and conference calls for Democrats across the country.

The work for the Obama campaign is part of a larger effort by Democrats to tie Romney to Ryan's budgets. The plans have passed the Republican House in each of the last two years, but have been rejected by the Democratic Senate.

During the Republican primary campaign, Romney called Ryan's approach "bold and exciting" and "marvelous." But since choosing Ryan, the former Massachusetts governor has sought to distance himself from the specifics.

"I have my budget plan," he said this month. "And that's the budget plan we're going to run on."

That hasn't stopped Democrats from campaigning against what they call the "Romney-Ryan plan."

"When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be on the ticket, it sharpened the issues in the presidential race," Van Hollen said.

"The fundamental choice of the Ryan-Romney budget is another round of windfall tax breaks for the very wealthiest Americans, for people like Mitt Romney, at the expense of everyone and everything else," he said. "And when you put this in a budget context and agree that we need to reduce our long-term deficits, the math becomes very clear: If you ask nothing more from the very wealthy to reduce the deficit, you're going to hit everybody else much harder."

Van Hollen called it "a lopsided approach."

He added, "It means you're going to raise the cost for seniors on Medicare, it means you're going to ask middle-income taxpayers to pay more in taxes so that the wealthy can pay less, and it means much smaller investments in our kids' education and in our future economic growth and competitiveness."

A spokesman for Romney said Van Hollen "should check his facts."

"There's only one candidate in this race who has promised to raise taxes — Barack Obama," spokesman Michael Levoff said. "Mitt Romney supports tax reform that lowers rates across the board — for all taxpayers."

Romney has pledged a permanent, across-the-board 20 percent cut in marginal rates on top of the Bush tax cuts, due to expire in January.

He would also eliminate taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for taxpayers who earn less than $200,000, repeal the alternative minimum tax and eliminate estate taxes. He says he would pay for the cuts by eliminating unspecified tax deductions and loopholes.

"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have an economic plan that will save Medicare, reduce government spending, jump-start the economy, create jobs and strengthen the middle class," Levoff said.

In Tampa last week, Van Hollen joined other top Democrats to respond to the Republican convention.

"The point there, again, is to provide the other half of the story," Van Hollen said before leaving for Florida. "It's important that the American people get the facts on what the Romney-Ryan economic plan means for American families and for the country."

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