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Quiet on Veep, Paul Ryan Preps to Help Mitt Romney

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

If Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is angling to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, he’s nailed the art of campaigning for the job.

In an interview Thursday, the House Budget chairman declined to discuss the topic, waving me off mid-question as I tried to gauge his interest in being selected as the 2012 vice presidential nominee.

Has Ryan given the Romney campaign permission to vet him? Is the Congressman’s wife on board should the Republican presidential nominee ask him to serve? Ryan isn’t talking, which, ironically, is the best strategy if he’s interested in the job.

“Yeah, I’m not going to get into that stuff,” Ryan said during a conversation in his Capitol Hill office. “I’m not going to comment on the inner workings of their campaign. I don’t see any purpose in doing that.”

A youthful 42, Ryan appeared otherwise relaxed, and he engaged without hesitating on the other questions posed to him throughout an interview that was wedged between House votes and scheduled phone calls. The state of the Congressman’s relationship with Romney was not off limits.

Ryan, who endorsed Romney and campaigned with him throughout Wisconsin just before the state’s April 6 GOP presidential primary, said his conversations with the former Massachusetts governor began early this year and centered around fiscal policy. The two didn’t know each other well beforehand, but they have continued to talk regularly since Romney won Wisconsin. Sometimes, Romney calls Ryan, and vice versa, the Congressman said.

The House Budget chairman offered a business-like assessment of Romney, praising the former governor’s analytical approach and leadership skills. If the two have bonded personally, Ryan doesn’t say as much. But on the issues that motivate his political career — reining in federal spending, reducing the deficit and reforming social entitlement programs — Ryan talks as though he’s met a kindred spirit.

“It became really clear to me that he not only really understood the issues and the complexity of the issues, that he really had the fortitude to take these things on,” Ryan said. “He’s also a commanding guy.”

Republicans in November will defend their House majority, while also campaigning to take back the Senate and the presidency. Ryan argued that the country is headed for a European-style fiscal cliff and that Republicans do not have the luxury of playing it safe politically and avoiding the difficult task of implementing fiscal reforms, such as overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicare. But the politician in Ryan acknowledges that campaigning on this risks defeat — at least this year.

Since the 2010 midterms, President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats have attempted to defeat Republicans at the polls by accusing them of supporting the “Ryan plan” to “end Medicare and Social Security.” Democrats are now using the term “Romney-Ryan plan.” The Congressman said Obama is a talented campaigner whose ability to effectively push this message shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Of course it is [risky]. That’s the third rail, right? Conventional wisdom is that it’s really risky. That’s why nobody did it. I believe that that risk equation is flipping, though. The question is, will it flip fast enough or not [for the 2012 elections],” Ryan said, adding about Obama: “He’s really good at campaigning.”

Ryan noted that he was writing legislative “road maps” to address federal fiscal policy when he was still an unknown junior Member working out of a dinky basement office in the Cannon House Office Building. The Congressman confirmed that his dream job — what he’s been “plotting” for since he was first elected — is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy. It’s among the reasons he did not run for Senate.

But Ryan also has proved adept at politics.

The southern Wisconsin 1st district, which Ryan has represented since 1998, has voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates even as it has continued to re-elect its Republican Congressman by wide margins. A few years ago, recognizing that good policy was useless without a legislative majority, he joined an effort to help campaign and raise money for GOP Congressional candidates. When asked about the notoriety that led him to consider running for president and has made him a possible Romney running mate, Ryan sounded unimpressed.

“I planned on being an economist. That was where I was going to go with my life. I was not planning on being elected to Congress — let alone anything else,” Ryan said.

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