TAMPA - Paul Ryan stepped into the national spotlight on Wednesday not only as the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential nominee, but also as the vanguard of a new generation of GOP political leadership.
His name will appear below or beside Mitt Romney’s on this fall’s general election ballot, but it is only a matter of time before he and the likes of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senator Marco Rubio, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie assume control of their party.
Romney’s own nomination for president follows a well-established Republican line of succession that has trended toward older and establishment figures such as George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush, as well as Senator John McCain.
Candidates who lost in their first bid for the presidency, like Ronald Reagan or McCain, were rewarded with their patience by receiving the presidential nomination at a later date.
That history and practice helped fuel the early donations and momentum behind Romney’s own 2012 candidacy after his loss in the 2008 campaign to McCain.
But as a contentious primary season earlier this year showed, the GOP is enmeshed in a battle over its soul.
Social conservatives such as Rick Santorum have their view of the future, as do anti-government types like Representative Ron Paul of Texas and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. And then there are those like Ryan and Cantor with a financial focus.
At 42 years old, Ryan is part of a group leading a debate about the country’s social and governmental future by focusing on its budget and debt load.
All other debates are destined to be settled by the approach they take to the nation’s ledger sheet.
That is why congressman’s eponymous budget plan has endeared him to fiscal conservatives while also alienating him to social activists concerned about its proposed changes to Medicare.
Against that backdrop, Ryan walked onto the stage at the Republican National Convention as not just a transitional figure, but one with very little to lose politically.
If he and Romney succeed this fall in unseating President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan is ensured of at least four and perhaps eight years in the White House.
Either scenario would place him on the party’s traditional track toward the Oval Office itself.
One or two terms as vice president would give him the stature, bully pulpit, and fund-raising apparatus to lead the field of would-be Romney successors in 2016 or 2020.
Yet if he and Romney lose the general election in November, Ryan is still likely to emerge as a winner.
Not only is he almost assured of retaining his US House seat when Wisconsinites vote on Election Day, but with it his own bully pulpit as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
And if he avoids a Palin-like campaign meltdown over the next 10 weeks, Ryan will be at the forefront of Republican leadership and the party’s 2016 presidential field.
The current campaign is helping him build name recognition and a national political and fund-raising organization.
It is providing a public airing of his Ryan Plan and its approach to debt, taxes, Medicare, and other government spending.
And it is giving a relatively unknown congressman practice on the national stage and a thorough media vetting.
Should Romney and Ryan lose this fall, this year’s vice presidential running mate appears unlikely to suffer fallout - or be the cause - for the failures of the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Romney tapped Ryan, in part, to soothe a vocal wing in their party that clamored for his selection.
It is a choice that will either serve him well in 2012, or Ryan himself in the years to come.