JANESVILLE, Wisconsin (AP) — Even before Wisconsin sent Paul Ryan to Congress, he was meticulously carving a path that seemed to point only upward.
As a young staffer in Congress, he impressed Republican lawmakers with his hustle and intellectual curiosity. He blended quickly with an elite crop of conservative thinkers. By his 30s, he was a congressman on his way to becoming a Republican name brand with his bold budget proposals.
Standing in front of the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia, Ryan proclaimed himself “committed in mind and heart” to the task Romney conferred. He introduced himself as someone, through his years in office, in touch with “inner cities, rural areas, suburbs and factory towns.”
As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan gives Romney a link to Capitol Hill leadership and underscores Romney’s effort to make the election a referendum on the nation’s economic course. Romney also could see his standing improve in Wisconsin, a state President Barack Obama won handily four years ago but that could be much tighter this November.
Even so, Ryan has been a double-edged sword for Romney. The congressman’s endorsement of Romney came at a critical stage of the Republican primaries, giving him a boost in the Wisconsin race. But it also meant Romney was embracing the Ryan-sponsored budget proposal that Obama’s Democrats fiercely target as painful to the poor and elderly.
Still, the square-jawed congressman is viewed as a bridge between the buttoned-up Republican establishment and the riled-up tea party movement that advocates smaller government, deep spending cuts and more tax cuts.
At 42, Ryan has spent almost half of his life in the Washington fold, the last 14 representing a southern Wisconsin district that runs from the shores of Lake Michigan through farm country south of Madison.
Ryan grew up in Janesville and still lives just down the block from where he spent his boyhood. His father, a lawyer, died of a heart attack when Ryan was a teenager.
Ryan leaned on his father’s memory as he took his first swipe as a running mate at Obama, suggestive of the traditional attack role he’ll inherit in the campaign.
Of his father, Ryan said, “He’d say ‘Son, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. Regrettably President Obama has become part of the problem and Mitt Romney is the solution.”
His father’s early death is one reason why Ryan is a fitness buff, leading fellow lawmakers through grueling, early-morning workouts and pushing himself through mountain climbs.
That same intensity propelled him on the political front, too.
He was first exposed to Congress as a summer intern to Sen. Robert Kasten. With an economics degree in hand, Ryan worked his way through committee staff assignments, a prominent think tank and top legislative advisory roles until opportunity arose with an open seat from his home turf. He leveraged Washington connections, local ties forged through the family construction business and the backing of anti-abortion groups en route to his surprisingly comfortable victory.
As a 28-year-old, Ryan entered Congress brimming with idealistic views about forcing government to become leaner and less intrusive, principles he thought even fellow Republicans were abandoning too readily.
“One of the first lessons I learned was, even if you come to Congress believing in limited government and fiscal prudence once you get here you are bombarded with pressure to violate your conscience and your commitment to help secure the people’s natural right to equal opportunity,” Ryan wrote in a 2010 book.
Critics question Ryan’s own consistency. They note that he backed a costly prescription drug benefit during Republican George W. Bush’s presidency that added strain to the Medicare budget, which Ryan touted at the time as “one of the most critical pieces of legislation” enacted since he joined Congress.
He said in a June interview with The Associated Press that he took a “defensive” vote to ward off a more expensive Senate version. More recently, Ryan served on a bipartisan presidential debt commission but balked at its report because a tax increase was on the menu of options.
He is a disciple of and past aide to the late Rep. Jack Kemp, once a Republican vice presidential nominee himself who effusively promoted tax cuts as a central tenet for economic growth.
Former Reagan cabinet secretary Bill Bennett, another Ryan mentor, called Ryan extremely reliable but not politically petty. “He doesn’t do brass knuckles or bare knuckles,” Bennett said on CNN. “He is without guile.”
From the title page of his idyllic “Path to Prosperity” budget plan down to the most scrutinized fine print, Ryan is adept at framing proposals in the most pleasant terms.
Ryan’s opponents charge that his call to open Medicare, the government sponsored health plan for the elderly, to more private competition is too risky even if implementation would be a ways off; he counters that the latest version was fashioned in consultation with prominent Democrats in hopes of heading off an all-out program collapse that would devastate the financial security of future retirees.
Foes say his plans to scale back food stamps and housing assistance are mean-spirited; Ryan describes the moves, which would allow states to further customize their welfare programs while imposing tougher time limits and work requirements, as empowerment for the downtrodden who he argues are being lulled into lives of complacency and dependency.
It took time for Ryan’s own party to get fully behind his ideas. A few years ago, when Ryan first proposed dramatic changes to such entitlement programs as Medicare, some Republicans were skittish because Democrats pounced on the plans as undermining the health program accessed by millions of retirees.
Kasten said Ryan’s refusal to back down paid off politically.
“If all the sudden you become the dartboard for everyone on the left and you are willing to stand there and take the heat and the darts, you develop a tremendous amount of respect even from those who are throwing the darts,” Kasten said. “In the beginning it’s a grudging respect. It grows into a true respect.”
Ryan has let opportunities to advance come and go, most recently when he opted not to seek an open U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin. His young family factored into his considerations; he and wife, tax attorney Janna, have a daughter and two sons.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.