Ryan's life of early loss and regular-guy jobs offers stark contrast to Romney's.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., newly announced Republican vice presidential candidate to Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, addresses the crowd Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, in Norfolk, Va.
Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is Capitol Hill's ultimate self-made man. He began as a 19-year-old intern delivering congressional mail and propelled himself upward with a mastery of wonky detail and a talent for cultivating powerful mentors.
He is now a seven-term congressman, a committee chairman and the chief architect of GOP ideas on Medicare, the budget and the national debt. Ryan's big ideas bear the stamp of his own story: They stress independence and self-reliance, the qualities that took him from the mailroom to a spot on his party's presidential ticket.
"He lost his father early and had to grow up sooner than he wanted to," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "That certainly has informed his policies."
Ryan, 42, lives just down the block from his boyhood home in Janesville, Wis., with his wife, Janna, and their three children, and he sleeps in his congressional office on weeknights. In his private life, Ryan pursues the hobbies of an everyman with an overachiever's zeal. He sweats through grueling "P90x" workouts in the House gym. He beats other legislators in contests to recite the most lines from "Fletch." And he fishes for catfish -- with his bare hands.
'They really wonked out'
Ryan has, in many ways, lived a life that is the inverse of his running mate's. Romney is the son of a politician who found great success in the private sector. Ryan is the son of a lawyer who died when Ryan was 16. He has spent almost his entire adult life in Washington -- either in government or in think tanks trying to influence government. He has cited his Catholic faith and author Ayn Rand as major influences on his conservative thinking.
Yet Romney and Ryan have an unusually easy chemistry together, one that began in 2007, when they first met.
"They hit it off instantly. They really wonked out, about taxes, budget, entitlement reform," said Cesar Conda, an adviser to Romney's 2008 campaign. The meeting with Ryan was supposed to last a few minutes. It went close to an hour.
"When Romney and I left the office, Romney was saying, 'Wow, I really like this guy,'" said Conda, now chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
People have always liked Ryan. The story of his political life has been his success in charming people. Ryan comes from one of the most prominent families in Janesville, a town of 64,000 that was sustained by factories making GM cars and Parker writing pens. He worked regular-guy jobs that will surely become campaign fodder: grilling burgers at McDonald's and driving the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.
In high school, he showed the zeal that would mark him later on Capitol Hill. He played two sports, joined 10 clubs and was prom king. But he also was voted "Biggest Brown-Noser."
Ryan came to Washington at 19, as a college student interning for then-Sen. Robert Kasten. This was the lowliest rung of Hill life, but Ryan tried to make it count. And he eventually made connections that landed him a job with Empower America, a think tank run by former Rep. Jack Kemp. That led to a job with then-Sen. Sam Brownback.
Rising from a disaster
At just 27, he won his House seat. But during his first eight years, he made little mark. In fact, it took an electoral disaster to make Ryan a Republican star. The disaster was the 2006 election. The GOP lost 30 seats and its House majority. Party leaders, looking for new blood, selected 36-year-old Ryan over more senior members to be ranking Republican on the Budget Committee.
He now wields a kind of influence that eluded even his powerful mentors. Said Rep. Trey Gowdy: "When Paul Ryan says something is the right thing to do, it is like Reagan himself said it."