OXFORD, Ohio — He can rouse large crowds to giddiness, ascend private jets two steps at a time, and catch a baseball with one hand, sign it, and throw it back to an adoring fan.
Can Paul D. Ryan leap tall buildings in a single bound? Not yet, though his swarms of adoring fans might find it plausible.
(PHOTO: Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, with his wife Janna Ryan, attend a rally with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, not pictured, at the Waukesha County Expo Center on Sunday, August 12, 2012 in Waukesha, Wisconsin.)
It was only a week ago that Ryan was a congressman from a district of 700,000, known — if he was known at all — for his controversial budget plan. Now, he drives in motorcades that close down miles of highway and can’t walk down a street in Iowa without being cheered.
It’s not all good: Since Saturday, Ryan has found himself pounded by Democrats for his proposal to sharply curtail the size of the federal government. He was nearly drowned out by hecklers at the Iowa State Fair — two made it onto the stage before the Secret Service hauled them away.
Still, Ryan seems to have easily weathered the transition to the center ring, at times even upstaging Mitt Romney, the man who selected him Saturday as his running mate. There’s no telling his trajectory from here, but for better or worse, it’s goodbye anonymity.
Ryan has said little to the reporters now trailing him, but an exchange Sunday as he took the microphone at a Wisconsin event typified both the reaction he’s gotten from voters and his enthusiastic embrace of his new standing.
“I love you, Paul,” shouted a man in the mass of supporters.
“I love you too, man,” Ryan quickly replied.
So far, his transition has been markedly different from Sarah Palin’s in the 2008 race, when she was named the Republican vice presidential running mate, gave a well-received convention speech within days, and then quickly suffered the slings of “Saturday Night Live” mockery. It’s a sharp contrast, too, to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 selection of Sen. Dan Quayle, which swiftly devolved into questions about his Vietnam draft status and penchant for wobbly remarks.
To be sure, there are adjustments to be made. A fitness fanatic, Ryan can no longer run outside unless he wants to be trailed by Secret Service agents. One early morning this week, he could be found in a hotel gym clad in T-shirt, shorts and a red Wisconsin Badger cap, doing his torturous P90X workout routine, displayed on an iPad.
“I turn my brain off,” he said, before lying down on an exercise mat with some weights.
Being able to walk unnoticed through airports disguised only in a baseball cap — as he did en route to his announcement — has given way to wall-to-wall coverage, but he said he hasn’t watched much (he reads the papers, he said.).
“He’s sort of having to deal at a level he’s never played at before,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law and an expert on the vice presidency. “At multiple levels, it’s a pretty dramatic change.”
In the last few days, as he has moved from swing state to swing state — Virginia on Saturday, Nevada on Tuesday, Ohio on Wednesday — Ryan has portrayed himself as an outdoorsy family man, comfortable hunting and ice fishing and catching catfish with his bare hands. He’s just the average guy next door whose veins run “with cheese and bratwurst,” he said, who spends $100 to fill up his truck with gas, and has friends who used to work at the GM factory in his hometown and stitches on his chin from playing hockey in college.
He introduced himself by just his first name, saying “Hi, I’m Paul,” to voters at the Iowa State Fair, and referred in speeches to time spent flipping burgers at McDonald’s. He carried his own bag down the stairs of the private jet that flew him to Wisconsin for his homecoming rally.
“We’re just guys from Wauwatosa, Kenosha, Oshkosh and Janesville,” he said in Wisconsin, pointing to Gov. Scott Walker, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, all clad in button-down blue shirts.
This “average guy” pitch sometimes contrasts Ryan with Romney, who is 23 years his senior and markedly less comfortable on the campaign trail. In Wisconsin, the two stepped out of the Romney bus, like Batman and Robin in a world where Robin had suddenly become the ranking superhero. During Ryan’s speech, Romney stood upright, arms stiffly by his side, as the crowd laughed and clapped to Ryan’s ad-libbed jokes about half the crowd being family.
“We will look back at this moment in 2013 as the day our generation fixed it … so that our children had a better future,” Ryan said to loud applause, not specifying whether he meant his generation or Romney’s.
His detractors, however, are legion. In Las Vegas, as Ryan met with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and other GOP donors in a room in the Venetian casino, public union members in town for a conference held a protest outside. They waved signs that read “Romney/Ryan, the road to ruin” and “Paul Ryan, hustling for the 1 percent.”
“His policies are as bad as his looks,” said Stacy Bodtmann, a union member from Newark, N.J. “I don’t think he’s good-looking.”
Tough words for a man whose abs have been the subject of Google searches in recent days — CNN ran a segment about how hard it was to find photos of him shirtless. Even gay websites, which criticize Ryan’s policies on civil rights, gush over his looks and say they wish he wore less-baggy suits.
Win or lose, few vice presidential candidates in the information age have faded back into obscurity after an election. John Edwards, Palin — even Palin’s daughter and reality-show denizen Bristol — are still more famous than most people in Congress.
But Ryan is not yet a household name everywhere. At the slot machines in Las Vegas, a few feet from elevators that whisked donors to the meeting with Ryan and Adelson, many people couldn’t place him.
“Paul Ryan?” said a gambler named Larry Thompson, playing the slots with two friends and looking confused. “Who is that, a football player or something?”