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Ryan’s Road Ahead

Paul D. Ryan said after losing his chance at the vice presidency last week that he was looking forward to spending time with his family at home in Janesville, Wis. The political world, though, is focused on how he’ll spend his time when he returns to Washington.

Ryan fulfilled his role as an icon of the Republican Party’s conservative wing on the ticket with Mitt Romney, putting himself in a strong position to seek the top job in 2016. Ryan has not given any indications of whether he plans to run for president, but some who know him expect him to take that step after putting the polite and proper distance between the campaign and his post-election positioning.

In the meantime, he will return to the House, where he is expected to seek a waiver from his party’s term-limit rules to remain Budget Committee chairman.

“I presume, and I think everybody presumes, that he would be coming back” as chairman, says John Campbell , a California Republican who recently dropped his own bid to chair the Budget panel. “The people I have talked to want him to do that. And if he does seek a waiver, my sense is that it would be very likely that it would be granted.”

Ryan faces some tough decisions, including the role he will take in the fiscal cliff negotiations. As the budget guru for House Republicans, he’s in position for a seat at the table. But any agreement reached between the two parties and the White House is likely to be a compromise that includes higher revenue. Being associated with a deal that conservatives dislike could jeopardize Ryan’s future as a national party figure.

Another decision down the road will be whether to pursue the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee in two years, when Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan reaches the three-term limit. Or he may decide to abandon Congress entirely to prepare for a presidential run.

Under a provision in Wisconsin law, Ryan remained on the ballot for his House seat and won an eighth term, although his margin was far narrower than in past races. He beat Democratic challenger Rob Zerban by 11.5 percentage points, down from margins that often exceeded 30 points in past elections.

Even if Ryan were not to seek a waiver, he would remain a figure of considerable influence in the House.

“Whether he’s formally the chairman of the Budget Committee or not, he’s going to have a following that gives him an important voice in Republican strategies,” says Steven S. Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. “He’ll remain the leading voice on budget matters for the Republicans.”

In an interview shortly before he was tapped as Romney’s running mate, Ryan dismissed any interest in seeking a formal position in the chamber’s hierarchy. “I never want to run for leadership, because I’m a policy guy — still feel that way,” he said.

As for his electoral decline in a district that leans slightly Republican, analysts see little reason for him to worry if he runs for the seat again in two years. They attribute the falloff in support to Ryan’s facing a stronger and better-funded foe than he has in the past, as well as other factors unique to simultaneously running for vice president and for Congress.

Charles Franklin, an elections expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says some Democrats who voted for Ryan in the past “are now looking at Paul Ryan as this symbol of the Republican Party,” leading them to vote against him for Congress.

Ryan has gotten positive assessments on his performance on the presidential campaign trail, despite a rough start.

“He’s done extraordinarily well,” says retired Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and former Budget Committee chairman. “He’s been substantive; he’s been civil, humorous; and he reminds me so much of Jack Kemp.”

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says Ryan’s campaign performance was “respectable” and strengthened his support among Republicans. “He’s viewed as a hero in the party, but he needs a reintroduction if he runs for president — a reintroduction that would make him more acceptable to independents.”

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