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From Prom King to Policy Wonk: A Look at Paul Ryan as He Launches VP Campaign

August 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his first appearance as Mitt Romney's running mate, vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan joined the campaign in Iowa. Kwame Holman reports. Then, Jeffrey Brown talks to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert about Paul Ryan's history, from being elected prom king to winning a seat in the U.S. House at just 28 years old.

GWEN IFILL: After a weekend spent together, the Romney-Ryan team split up today to hunt for votes in the South and Midwest. President Obama and Vice President Biden were in the same regions, and the two sides trained their sights on each other.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mitt Romney stumped solo this morning for the first time since Saturday, when he announced Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential choice.

In Saint Augustine, Fla., the Republican presidential hopeful praised Ryan as a great leader.

MITT ROMNEY (R): A man who has proven that he knows how to solve problems. He didn’t just go to Washington and become involved in public service to try and make a name for himself. He instead went to make things better for the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ryan, 42, is married and has three school-age children. He was a protégé of former Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp. Ryan first was elected to Congress in 1998 and now is serving in his seventh term. He became chair of the House Budget Committee last year, after Republicans took control following the 2010 midterm elections.

In that role, Ryan authored a budget that would require sweeping cuts in federal spending, repeal the president’s health care law, and impose changes for future Medicare recipients to hold down costs. Democrats say his proposals would gut Medicare.

But Romney assured his audience in Florida today that the Republican ticket will preserve and protect Medicare. And in an interview Sunday with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” he insisted his campaign wouldn’t be based on the Ryan budget.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I have my budget plan, as you know, that I have I have put out. And that’s the budget plan that we’re going to run on.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, in Durham, N.C., Vice President Joe Biden made it clear the budget issue is going to be front and center for Democrats.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: There’s no distinction between what the Republican Congress has been proposing the last two years — actually, the last four years — and what Gov. Romney wants to do. So let’s cut through all this. We’re running against — or they’re running on what the Republican Congress has been promoting for the past four years.

KWAME HOLMAN: And in Council Bluffs, Iowa, President Obama charged Ryan and other Republicans have blocked congressional action on a number of fronts, including drought relief for farmers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am told that Gov. Romney’s new running mate, Paul Ryan, might be around Iowa the next few days. He is one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way.

So, if you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities. We have got to put politics aside when it comes to doing the right thing for rural America and for Iowa.m

KWAME HOLMAN: Indeed, Ryan was in Iowa today, making his first solo appearance at the state fair in Des Moines. He deflected the president’s criticism, and focused instead on the Obama economic record.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wis.): My guess is, the reason President Obama isn’t making it here from Council Bluffs, because he only knows left turns.


REP. PAUL RYAN (D-Wis.): But, as you see the president come through on his bus tour, you might ask him the same question that I’m getting asked from people all around America. And that is, where are the jobs, Mr. President?

KWAME HOLMAN: The early response from Americans to the Ryan selection appeared to be mixed. A new “USA Today”/Gallup poll found 42 percent of registered voters rated the selection as fair or poor, while 39 percent called it excellent or pretty good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And our look at Ryan continues.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was born, raised and still lives in Janesville, Wis., served as class president, prom king, and worked at McDonald’s in high school, attended Miami University in Ohio, and was first elected to the House of Representatives when he was just 28.

Among those watching his rise in Wisconsin and on the national stage has been Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who joins us now.

Craig, start with the personal side. What’s important to know about Paul Ryan’s family background?

CRAIG GILBERT, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, he comes from a big Irish-Catholic family, multi-generation family in Janesville, Wis.

His father was a lawyer who died when he was 16. And Paul Ryan has talked about having to grow up really quickly and talked about learning lessons of self-reliance and independence that sort of put him on his road to pretty a brand — a conservative brand of politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, talk — tell us a little bit more about that, the development of his political and social beliefs. When and how did they come?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, I think, as a young man, he kind of gravitated toward thinkers like and writers like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and economists who really extolled the virtues of the individual and the virtues of free markets.

That happened in college. And after college, he went to work for Sen. Bob Kasten, a Republican from Wisconsin, and later for Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp. And he really was schooled in the economic doctrine of supply side, which is all about using deregulation and lower tax rates on income and investments to spur economic growth. He’s a true supply-sider.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we said he still lives in Janesville, but of course he’s been in Washington a good while now, elected at the age of just 28.

So, how did that happen? How did Paul Ryan become a politician and especially at such a young age?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, after, you know, being a staffer and a speechwriter and a policy guy on the Hill, he — his ambition was to go into elective politics.

And he ended up running in a district that was once represented by Les Aspin for many years, the Democrat who went on to be defense secretary for President Clinton, a pretty diverse district politically. I mean, Janesville is a Democratic-leaning city, but this is a district that contains Democratic areas and Republican areas and urban, rural and suburban areas.

It’s become a little bit more Republican over time. But Paul Ryan is one of the few really top conservatives in the House who has had to run in a district that is fairly purple. And I think that speaks to his political skills.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s often been remarked that he’s had this great success in bringing his ideas to the fore, particularly given his youth and lack of seniority in the House. You have watched him do it. How has he done — how has he done that?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, I think he was — he’s talked about being advised early on as he entered his congressional career to master a subject, to carve out a niche for himself, develop an expertise, which he obviously did in economic and fiscal policy.

And so the really remarkable thing about his rise is, here’s just a single member of the House of Representatives who, you know, through the Budget Committee, and not typically a platform of great power and influence, you know, becomes the architect of domestic policy for the Republican Party, setting a doctrine for House Republicans and now to some degree ultimately for a national ticket.

I mean, that’s something that he went about methodically, very methodically to do in terms of his relationships with his colleagues, his relationships in the conservative media and the conservative movement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And has he expressed surprise in his success, a sort of self-awareness of that, both at — over the last couple of years and of course now to this very high level of national prominence?

CRAIG GILBERT: Yes, well, I haven’t had a chance to talk to him too much about his selection to the ticket.

I mean, he’s always downplayed his political ambitions, but they’re obviously there, when you think about the swiftness of his rise. He likes to talk about himself as a policy wonk. “I’m a policy guy. I’m not a politics guy.”

So, there’s a little bit of aww shucks there. I mean, he actually is a very good politician. He’s a good communicator. He works his district very hard. And I think it would be a mistake for Democrats to underestimate his political skills.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel, thanks so much.