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JANESVILLE, Wis. - In U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's blue-collar hometown, between talk of the closed General Motors plant and the award-winning Rock Aqua Jays waterskiing team, residents are quick to praise the neighbor who now shares the Republican presidential ticket with Mitt Romney.
"I've always voted for Paul Ryan because I think he's a good guy, but I don't always vote one way or another," said Ryan neighbor Sherry Wilkerson, 45, taking a break from mowing her lawn and hushing her barking dog, Crackers.
"He's a nice guy," said Democrat George Bolter, 69, who lives just a few blocks away from Ryan's solid red-brick, six-bedroom house that Secret Service agents now guard. "It's just that where he stands politically is out there in the right field."
Ryan's combination of approachable charm and hard-right political views have won him an unbroken string of re-elections in this Democratic stronghold. His affable, workmanlike ethic in Congress catapulted the 42-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee to an elite political sphere, prompting Romney to add him to a presidential ticket that needed a boost and a dose of reassurance for GOP diehards that the team has rock-solid conservative credentials. In the few days since Ryan joined his running mate, he's brought energy, conservative gusto and a down-to-earth connection even supporters say Romney has been lacking.
Democrats have railed against Ryan's proposed deep budget reductions, which they say would force more into poverty and hurt the elderly, but they have struggled to blow a hole in Ryan the man. Ryan lives steps from his boyhood home in southern Wisconsin and is known for leading punishing fitness workouts on Capitol Hill. President Obama described Ryan as "a decent man" and "an articulate spokesman."
Ryan has risen to power in Washington without seeming outwardly ambitious, even though he has worked in the Beltway since college. Ryan has done it with deep policy knowledge and prom king charm. He has fashioned a delicate political balance that made him a darling of the right wing, while keeping Wisconsin independents and Republicans onboard.
"Paul Ryan is the 2012 Paul Revere," said Janesville Republican Tom McDermott, who attends Ryan's church in Janesville, St. John Vianney Catholic Church. Rather than warning of the British, Ryan is warning of fiscal doom, he said.
But at his home church, Ryan isn't known as a fire-breathing political ideologue. He generally sits toward the back with his family and doesn't make a fuss. In high school, Ryan studied hard, played sports and became a school council leader. Although he was voted "biggest brown-noser," he was also voted prom king.
"My veins run with cheese, bratwurst, a little Spotted Cow, Leinie's and some Miller. ... I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting. I'm a Wisconsinite through and through," he said at a Sunday night Waukesha rally with Romney.
Creature of Washington
Professionally, Ryan is a creature of Washington insider politics.
He got his first taste of congressional politics as a college intern for U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin.
The work was not glamorous, often sorting and delivering mail.
"He was as earnest, polite and enthusiastic," said his friend and mentor, Cesar Conda, who eventually provided a crucial link between Romney and Ryan.
Conda brought Ryan back as an intern the next year.
"He would always pop his head in the door and ask questions about what Senator Kasten was doing," Conda recalled. "I just gave him two books to read and said, 'This will get you started.'"
The books were "The Way the World Works," by Jude Wanniski, and "Wealth and Poverty" by George Gilder, which became the bible for Reagan-era economic policy.
Conda offered Ryan his first paid, full-time job working for Kasten after his graduation in 1992 from Miami University of Ohio, where Ryan double-majored in economics and political science.
After Kasten lost his seat, Ryan had a couple of brief stints at conservative think-tanks, then latched on to a speechwriting job for then-New York Congressman Jack Kemp. Many saw the congressman serve as a father figure for Ryan, who lost his own father at 16.
Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Pat Shortridge, then an aide to future House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, remembers Ryan as "a serious, thoughtful policy guy. ... He was never one looking to stick his finger in the other guy's eye. He was looking to solve problems."
After winning his seat in Congress in 1999, Ryan remained a quiet, serious presence, largely in the background until the Democratic successes in 2006 and 2008 opened up space in the GOP caucus and propelled him to the top spot on the House Budget Committee.
There, with his signature budget blueprint slashing spending and overhauling entitlements, Ryan has carved out a niche as the Republicans' numbers guru.
"He knows what he's talking about and he knows how to talk about it," said Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who sat next to Ryan during a health care summit with Obama in 2010.
Ryan's career in politics and his numerous clashes with the administration are already shaping Obama's campaign message. The president's campaign has spent the last few days portraying Ryan as the embodiment of government gridlock and the face of Congress' low approval rating.
In Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Monday, Obama told voters that many members of Congress are blocking the farm bill from becoming law.
Ryan "is one of the leaders of Congress standing in the way," Obama said to boos. "So if you happen to see Congressman Ryan, tell him how important this farm bill is to Iowa and our rural communities. We've got to put politics aside when it comes to doing the right thing for rural America and for Iowa."
But it is Ryan's fearless enthusiasm, Congressional savvy and deep policy knowledge that appealed to Romney.
Back in 2007, Conda introduced Ryan to Romney. The three met in Ryan's office for a get-acquainted meeting that was supposed to last about 15 minutes. It lasted nearly an hour.
"They hit it off almost instantaneously," Conda recalls. "They began talking about entitlement reform, tax reform and the economy. They got into a really wonky discussion about border adjustable taxes. Don't ask me to explain it."
When they left, Romney turned to Conda and said, "I really like him. He's really sharp."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb