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Sunday, August 12, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, is a Beltway charmer
By David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane
The Washington Post
Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is Capitol Hill's ultimate self-made man. He began as a 19-year-old intern delivering congressional mail and propelled himself upward with a mastery of wonky detail and a talent for cultivating powerful mentors.
Ryan is a seven-term congressman, a committee chairman and the chief architect of Republican Party ideas on Medicare, the budget and the national debt. His big ideas bear the stamp of his own story: They stress independence and self-reliance, the qualities that took him from the mailroom to a spot on his party's presidential ticket. What government owes its citizens, Ryan says, is not a guarantee of happiness — only a fair shot to pursue it.
"He lost his father early and had to grow up sooner than he wanted to," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "That certainly has informed his policies and his outlook. We're better off looking inward ... individual responsibility is where it's at."
Ryan, 42, lives in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., with his wife, Janna, and their three children, and he sleeps in his congressional office on weeknights.
In his private life, Ryan pursues the hobbies of an everyman with an overachiever's zeal. He once moonlighted as a fitness trainer and now sweats through grueling morning "P90X" workouts — a type of extreme fitness regimen — in the House gym. He beats other legislators in contests to recite the most lines from "Fletch." And he fishes for catfish — with his bare hands.
Flake remembered once calling Ryan's cellphone on a weekend: Ryan answered in a whisper. Flake talked for five minutes about the Farm Bill before Ryan cut him off: "Can I call you back? I'm in a deer stand."
Ryan has spent almost his entire adult life in Washington, D.C., either in government or in think tanks trying to influence government. He has cited his Roman Catholic faith and author Ayn Rand as major influences on his conservative thinking.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Ryan have an unusually easy chemistry, one that began in 2007, when the two first met.
"They hit it off instantly. They really wonked out, about taxes, budget, entitlement reform," said Cesar Conda, then an adviser to Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. He was taking Romney around to meet congressional Republicans. The meeting with Ryan was supposed to last a few minutes. It went close to an hour.
"When Romney and I left the office, Romney was saying, 'Wow, I really like this guy,' " Conda, now chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recalled Saturday.
People have always liked Ryan. The story of his political life has been his success in charming people — including a string of powerful friends in Congress, think tanks and the conservative media — in small rooms. But now, his charm must work in the big rooms, even stadiums.
Ryan has never run for anything bigger than his congressional seat and has rarely had to campaign hard for that. In a recent CNN poll, 54 percent of the public either didn't know Ryan at all or had no opinion about him.
"I represent a part of America that includes inner cities, rural areas, suburbs and factory towns," Ryan said Saturday after Romney introduced him as his running mate in Norfolk, Va. Ryan said Republicans can rein in a government that is smothering hopes instead of standing back and letting them blossom. "We promise equal opportunity," he said. "Not equal outcomes."
Ryan comes from Janesville, a town of 64,000 that was sustained by factories making GM cars and Parker writing pens. He worked regular-guy jobs that will surely become campaign-trail fodder: grilling burgers at McDonald's, selling bologna for Oscar Mayer.
His family has been prominent in the town for five generations, starting a major road-construction firm.
Ryan's life changed as a 16-year-old when he found his father dead of a heart attack. He's called it a defining moment in which he decided he needed to step up in life.
At Craig High School, Ryan showed the zeal that would mark him later on Capitol Hill. He played two sports, joined 10 clubs, was class president and prom king. But his classmates also voted him "biggest brown-noser" his senior year.
Ryan went to college at Miami University in Ohio, where he met William Hart, an outspoken libertarian professor of economics.
Hart said he spoke to Ryan about philosopher Ayn Rand. Ryan later credited Rand as an influence for him going into public service, describing it as "individualism vs. collectivism." Ryan told The Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gave Rand's books as gifts and tried to make his interns read them. He's since distanced himself from Rand's teachings, saying in particular that he never believed in Rand's atheism.
While a student at Miami, he went to Washington, D.C., at 19, interning for then-Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wis. This was the lowliest rung of Capitol Hill life, but Ryan tried to make it count.
When he had to deliver mail to Kasten's other office at the Senate Small Business Committee, Ryan stuck his head in to ask Conda — a more experienced staffer — about supply-side economics.
"Not the questions you (usually) get from the mail guy," Conda said.
Ryan soon went to work as a speechwriter for Empower America, a conservative research center that included the late Rep. Jack Kemp, a New York Republican and former NFL quarterback who championed tax cuts as a central tenet of economic growth and whom Ryan has called a major influence.
Ryan also worked as a Republican congressional staffer before running for the U.S. House in 1998 and winning.
A star is born
It took an electoral disaster to make Ryan a Republican star. The disaster was the 2006 election. The GOP lost 30 seats and its House majority. Party leaders, looking for new blood, selected Ryan, then 36, over more senior members to be ranking Republican on the budget committee.
Ryan used that position to begin fleshing out ideas he learned from Kemp, a godfather of conservative economics. But Ryan didn't spend much time trying to win over his colleagues in the House. Instead, he focused on conservative thinkers outside Congress, such as Paul Gigot, head of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Before he unveiled an ambitious budget, a "Road Map for America's Future," in 2009, Ryan sent the proposal to Gigot first. Ever since, each Ryan budget offering has first been unveiled as an op-ed piece in The Journal.
By the time that Republicans retook the House, in 2010, Ryan's views had been echoed in the conservative media. A new crop of freshmen took them as gospel and demanded them as law. Ryan's influence survived his vote for something the tea party hates: the $700 billion financial bailout.
This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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