WASHINGTON — Paul Ryan was in a Fairfield Inn in coastal North Carolina last Friday night, eating takeout food from Applebee’s in one of his last meals as an unknown to most Americans. Within hours, the Wisconsin congressman would undergo one of the oddest, headiest, and most dramatic transformations in politics: becoming a vice presidential nominee.
Suddenly, this budget and policy wonk is springboarding to national prominence with everything — from his 99-page budget plan to the crease in his trousers — under a microscope. He now has an airplane at his disposal, a group of Secret Service agents by his side, and, as it turns out, an electorate not always curious about his baseline budget figures: The day after Mitt Romney announced the fitness buff as his new running mate, the second top search term for “Paul Ryan” on Google was “shirtless” (the fourth was the policy term he’s known for: “budget”).
“It’s a very sudden thing — you’re thrown into a maelstrom,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who has been closely involved with three vice presidential campaigns. “You have what looks like a normal life in politics — a senator, or governor, or whatever – and you’re thrown into this presidential campaign that’s going 100 miles per hour.”
Ryan has much to learn. As a congressional candidate with about 730,000 constituents, he has debated his opponents only on local cable access television. Within two months he will be on national television facing off in front of millions against Vice President Joe Biden. Within two weeks, he’ll be at the Republican National Convention, delivering the most closely-watched speech of his career.
It can be a dizzying transition, for the candidate and all those around him.
When asked how he’s staying grounded, Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said, “He’s continuing to do his P90X workout every morning.”
Buck declined to comment on Ryan’s speechwriting, or whether Ryan had started doing debate preparations. He said he didn’t know who would be playing Biden during preparations.
Ryan has had to immediately step into a campaign apparatus that he did not design. Romney’s campaign had a staff-in-waiting as soon as Ryan formally joined the campaign Saturday. Jake Kastan, who had been one of Romney’s advance campaign staffers, became Ryan’s personal aide, essentially following him everywhere he goes and tending to every need. Bob White, one of Romney’s closest friends, jumped aboard Ryan’s flight Sunday night when Ryan and Romney parted ways.
Ryan has started drafting his convention speech, which according to ABC News is being written with the help of Matthew Scully, the author of Sarah Palin’s speech four years ago that electrified the GOP.
“You’re coming into a campaign after a lot of relationships have been established, a lot of roles have been established,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who has studied the vice presidency. “You’re the new kid on the block.’’
Ryan also has significant ground to make up on foreign policy. He has been on at least nine trips abroad, visiting at least 21 countries, according to a preliminary list from campaign officials and a Globe review of congressional records. But he is far more comfortable talking about deficit reduction and budget figures.
To help out, Dan Senor, one of Romney’s foreign policy advisers, is working with Ryan full time.
The areas where Romney and Ryan diverge are causing some issues, most prominently over budget cuts. Ryan’s budget proposal is more specific on what he would cut, including $716 billion in Medicare. Romney has criticized President Obama for his own plan to cut $716 billion to help pay for his health care overhaul, but Ryan’s position has muddied the attack.
“It’s no longer getting up to speed on Ryan’s take on issues,” Goldstein said. “It’s getting up to speed on Romney’s views and being able to answer in a way that is consistent and eliminates any daylight between Romney and Ryan. It’s not thinking, ‘What do I think?’ It’s thinking, ‘What does he think?’ ”
It’s the little things that can trip up a newly-minted national candidate. Dan Quayle was accustomed to speaking from notecards, or extemporaneously, and suddenly had to familiarize himself with the Teleprompter. Palin struggled through questions she faced in national television interviews, with memorable lines that wound up in a parody on “Saturday Night Live.’’
Devine, who managed Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s vice presidential campaign in 1988, said that just after he joined the campaign, Bentsen requested that he not be forced to participate in a vice presidential debate.
He wasn’t ready, he said, and thought he’d be overshadowed by the younger Quayle. Devine convinced him otherwise, but immediately began scheduling debate preparation sessions that stretched until the final hours before Bentsen took the stage.
Like Bentsen — as well as Joseph Lieberman and Biden — Ryan will simultaneously be on the ballot in his home state. It forces him to consider how he’s being perceived in his district – and potentially preserving his seat in Congress, if polling takes a downward turn for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
“He’s had a pretty easy time here at home. He’s not used to having the heat of fire, or something hotly contested,” said Marge Krupp, a Democrat who challenged Ryan in 2008.
“Paul Ryan, he is not stupid. He’s very smart. He’ll learn quickly,” Krupp said. “He’s a good actor, he’s a good politician.”