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 now a seven-term congressman, a committee chairman and the chief architect of GOP ideas on Medicare, the budget and the national debt. Ryan's 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, still lives in his home town 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 sweats through grueling "P90x" workouts 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, in many ways, lived a life that is the inverse of his running mate's.
Romney is the son of a politician who found great success in the private sector. Ryan is the son of a lawyer who died when Ryan was 16. He has spent almost his entire adult life in Washington – either in government or in think tanks trying to influence government. He has cited his Catholic faith and author Ayn Rand as major influences on his conservative thinking.
Despite their differences, Romney and Ryan have an unusually easy chemistry together, one that began in 2007, when the two met for the first time.
"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 just 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, the big rooms. Stadiums, even.
Ryan has never run for anything bigger than his congressional seat and has rarely had to campaign hard for that. It remains to be seen if he can work the same magic of his town hall meetings on the vast crowds of a presidential campaign, many of whom will be getting to know him for the first time. In a recent CNN poll, 54 percent of the public said they 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 in his first appearance Saturday with Romney on a battleship in Norfolk. He said he saw dark clouds in these places: "There is something different in their voice and in their words. What I hear from them are diminished dreams, lowered expectations, uncertain futures." Now, 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 one of the most prominent families in 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.
At Craig High School, Ryan showed the zeal that would mark him later on Capitol Hill. He played two sports, joined 10 clubs and was prom king. But his classmates also voted him "Biggest 'Brown-Noser.' "
Ryan came to Washington at 19, as a student at Miami University of Ohio, interning for then-Sen. Robert Kasten, R-Wis. This was the lowliest rung of 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. He gave Ryan a pair of books that outline conservative economics – "The Way the World Works" and "Wealth and Poverty.""Back then, he was what he is today, which is a real policy wonk."
Ryan had made a connection. It would lead to other connections. In 1993, Conda helped Ryan get a job with Empower America, a think tank run by former representative Jack Kemp, R-N.Y. That was a steppingstone to another Hill job, working for then-Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who is now governor of Kansas.
And that job, in turn, connected Ryan with a friend who would transform his career: then-representative Mark Neumann (R), who represented Ryan's hometown district.
Neumann was leaving that seat to run for the Senate in 1998. He needed a successor, and he liked Ryan's optimistic demeanor and budget smarts. He asked the staffer, just 27, to run for his seat.
"Sure got this one right," Neumann said in a phone interview Saturday, reflecting back on that decision.
Ryan won that race by 15 points. But during his first eight years in Congress, he made little mark. In fact, 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 36-year-old Ryan 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 time trying to win over his colleagues in the House. Instead, he focused on conservative thinkers outside Congress, such as Paul Gigot, the head of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Before he unveiled an ambitious budget, called a "Road Map for America's Future," in 2009, Ryan sent the proposal to Gigot first, seeking his opinion before asking his own party's leaders. Ever since, each Ryan budget offering has first been unveiled as an op-ed 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.
In 2011 and 2012, the House passed Ryan-authored plans that would balance the budget by 2040. They would do that by ending traditional Medicare for future seniors, slashing spending on Medicare and food stamps, and cutting tax rates for the wealthy. The Democrat-controlled Senate rejected those proposals.
Now Ryan wields a kind of influence in the House that eluded even his powerful mentors. In interviews Saturday, fellow Republicans said that Ryan had the power to hold his fellow members spellbound, even those elected by tea party voters that reject Washington insiders.
"When that guy stands up in conference, you can hear Tim Scott change his mind. It's that quiet," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R), referring to fellow South Carolinian Scott.
Gowdy saw the source of Ryan's power up close last year. Gowdy told Ryan that five activists back in South Carolina were criticizing his plans to vote for a bill to continue funding the government.
Ryan asked for their numbers and called them himself. Gowdy stood in Ryan's office as the onetime intern put down a rebellion hundreds of miles away.
"When Trey Gowdy says something is the right thing to do in my district, people yawn," Gowdy said. "When Paul Ryan says something is the right thing to do, it is like Reagan himself said it."
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Amy Goldstein, Lori Montgomery, Jerry Markon and Alice Crites contributed to this report.