Learning the ropes: Paul Ryan adjusts to life on the trail

Chris Moody
August 20, 2012

Paul Ryan's time in Mitt Romney's nest was brief.

After just two days together, Romney sent his new running mate off to head up a solo tour of this election cycle's most important battleground states. Speaking primarily in gymnasiums of high schools and colleges across Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Florida last week, Ryan introduced himself to voters while pitching Romney's message day by day.

As House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan is perfectly at ease burrowing himself into the minutia of federal budget policy inside a Capitol Hill committee room. But, as vice presidential candidate, his challenge is twofold: Make the campaign about Romney and his ideas, while not getting buried in the weeds of policy-speak. Ryan has spent most of his adult life working inside the Beltway, surrounded by Washington policy wonks and speaking the language of D.C.

Now, he just needs to speak English.

This is nothing new for Ryan, who has had plenty of practice translating the Washington Sanskrit for his constituents back in Wisconsin. He has held more than 550 town-hall meetings in his district, where he has repeatedly explained his detailed plan for budget reform. He has fielded questions from skeptical constituents, reshaped his message to make it more understandable and sparred with camera-wielding activists looking to make the next big viral hit on YouTube. Ryan typically likes to speak using slides, graphs and white boards—props he forgoes on the campaign trail.

But this isn't a community meeting in Janesville, and Ryan isn't here to sell his budget. He's here to sell Mitt Romney.

And in doing so, Ryan has some natural attributes he can rely on to ease the challenge. At 42 years old, the candidate is relatively young to be on a national ticket. Much like President Barack Obama, he is energetic and charismatic on the stump.

Ryan makes a point to pore over his remarks with staff between stops to craft that message—not surprising for a student of the classic masters of rhetoric. On stage, the congressman clearly enjoys delivering speeches, and although his new role can be tough at times, he seems to be having fun learning the ropes.

"I am just amazed at the size of these crowds, at the enthusiasm," Ryan told NBC affiliate WJLA on Saturday. "It fills you with energy."

Ryan has not completely memorized his speech after a week into his time as Romney's running mate. He relies on notes spread out on a lectern in front of him. He strides across the stage and speaks mostly from memory, but steals quick glances at the pages to keep himself on track.

Like his wardrobe, Ryan continues to adjust to fitting into his new incarnation as one who exists to do Romney's bidding, not his own.

Although he's known as one of the few politicians to embrace discussions of details and specifics, Ryan has now been baptized in the waters of the Great Sea of Generalities that is part of a 21st century presidential campaign—and he's still getting used to the temperature. While he seems to get better with each speech, zinger lines like "Obama is more worried about his next election than about the next generation" and "he's going to resort to a campaign of fear and smear" can at times come across as forced.

So far, Romney's No. 2 has been restricted from engaging in a free-wheeling press conference with the traveling media, a strategy that has helped him stay on message. In his first several days as vice presidential candidate, Ryan did, however, sit for interviews with Fox News hosts and local news outlets in several states. He also shared a chili dog lunch with this reporter, and fielded a question about Medicare. But the relative lack of access is new for this Wisconsin congressman, who has a reputation on Capitol Hill as being press friendly and more prone to take the longer, public walking routes between his office and the House floor to talk with reporters instead of the underground train that shuttles members back and forth. Now, when Ryan passes groups of reporters on the campaign trail, he smiles and waves with a look in his eye that suggests that he is resisting a natural urge to stop and chat for a while.

Despite the learning curve, it is in the art of making politics personal where Ryan appears at his very best. Of course, Ryan and Romney's punchy jabs at Obama over the president's "you didn't build that" line about business owners—a remark most Republicans have taken out of context—are always met with applause. But Ryan has the ability to paint a narrative about the role of government in his own life in a way Romney never has.

For instance, Ryan delivered the climax of his weeklong crescendo at his final stop in Florida on Saturday, where he spoke at a retirement community. Ryan brought his mother on stage with him and spoke personally about how Medicare—the program his opponents say he wants to destroy and Ryan says he wants to save—gave his own family an opportunity to thrive.

Near the end of his speech, Ryan discussed how his widowed mother started her own business to support the family while he was still in high school.

"My mom had three or four employees at that small business that she started. We were taking care of my grandma at the time, she was going to school, and then she started that small business," Ryan said, turning around to speak directly to his mother. "And Mom, Mom, I am proud of you for going out and getting another degree. I am proud of you for the small business that you created. And Mom, you did build that!"

Ryan pumped his fist and let out a grunt as though he just scored a touchdown. Based on the reaction from the crowd of retirees looking on, they thought so too.