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17 Aug 2012 14:16
Running mates: Paul Ryan and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (Getty Images, AFP)
For his choice of congressman Paul Ryan – a young firebrand politician from the heartland state of Wisconsin – as his running mate in the 2012 White House race represents anything but politics as usual.
Ryan (42) is one of the so-called "young guns" of the Republican party in Washington, a group of politicians aiming to revitalise the party's brand and cast it as more revolutionary and activist, especially in the area of overhauling government spending. For that is where Ryan's main area of influence lies.
First elected to Congress at the young age of 28, Ryan has emerged after 14 years in the Capitol as the powerful chair of the House budget committee, determined to wield the axe on matters fiscal and slash American government in size.
That has made him a Tea Party hero.
His proposals on the budget have been hailed by his supporters as a way to save the United States from going broke as it struggles with a wave of retiring baby boomers and a vast amount of debt.
His political opponents, however, cast his plans as a brutal attack on the poor aimed at stripping away or transforming cherished – and vital – benefits such as Medicare, social security and food stamps.
However, troubled times are something Ryan does know something about on a personal level.
Unlike the vastly moneyed Romney, who was born the son of a state governor and car-industry magnate, Ryan's background is more modest and marred by tragedy.
He was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, on January 29 1970, in the south of the state, a region of rolling hills, farms and small towns struggling with the decline of American industry.
His father, Paul Ryan Sr, was a successful lawyer in Janesville and from a long-established, prominent Roman Catholic family in the town.
He remains a Catholic, married Oklahoma-raised tax lawyer Janna Little in 2000 and has three children.
But Ryan's childhood was not always easy. His father died when Ryan was 16 years old.
Indeed, Ryan – the youngest of four children – discovered his stricken parent in bed, laid low by a fatal heart attack at age 55.
That trauma in 1986 forced Ryan's mother, Elizabeth, to go back to college to study interior design and his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, to move back in with them to help with the family.
Punch in the gut
In a New Yorker magazine profile Ryan described the death of his father as a huge moment in his life.
"It was just a big punch in the gut. I concluded I've got to either sink or swim in life," Ryan told the magazine.
It also made him a fitness buff as he realised that the sort of heart attack that felled his father might run in his family.
Ryan is a huge fan of an extreme form of workout, called P90X, which involves an intense mix of exercise, yoga and martial arts moves.
He is also an avid outdoorsman and hunter, though given his childhood in Wisconsin that is little real surprise.
One friend, former congressman Mark Green, told CNN he had sent Ryan an email once from his new job as an ambassador in Tanzania.
"I got this terse response saying, 'I'm sitting in a deer stand. It's hunting season. Leave me alone,'" Green told the TV station.
Wheeling and dealing
Ryan went to college at Miami University in Ohio and graduated in 1992 with a degree in economics and politics.
After a brief period back in Wisconsin working as a marketing consultant Ryan headed to Washington, landing a job with Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten, with whom he had interned while a student.
He became enmeshed in the world of Washington wheeling and dealing, working as a speech writer and economic adviser.
He also professed an admiration for the ideas of anti-government libertarian guru Ayn Rand.
By 1997 he decided to run for Congress himself and a year later he won his election battle in his native state and entered the House, becoming its second-youngest member in 1998.
He made cutting government and rolling back the welfare state the central tenet of his political beliefs.
He first came to national prominence in 2005 when he was a fervent backer of President George W Bush's attempts to reform social security by changing much of it into private investment accounts.
But Bush, despite devoting a huge amount of political capital into the scheme, failed to make it popular with the American people.
In the face of withering attacks from Democrats it was eventually abandoned.
But not by Ryan. He used his new high profile to keep pushing radical ideas on government spending reform.
As the Tea Party emerged in the wake of the economic crises of 2008 Ryan was perfectly situated to ride that wave.
He dubbed his budgetary plans the Roadmap and, along with other young guns, such as House majority leader Eric Cantor, pushed transforming the welfare state as an answer to the US's economic woes.
In the wake of the 2010 mid-term elections, which saw the Tea Party-infused Republicans get control of the House, Ryan ended up in a head-to-head public debate with President Barack Obama over his budget plans.
That moment saw Ryan become even more of a hero to Republican conservatives.
By 2011 the House had voted on Ryan's budget plan and passed it by 235 votes to 193. Though many Democratic strategists and leaders see Ryan's budget as rich fodder for attacks, that view is not shared by Republicans.
When his budget passed the House Ryan's powerful influence was clear: just four Republicans dared vote against it. That showed how Ryan's career has seen him cement his grip on the Republican right.
But now, with his name on a presidential ticket, Ryan is about to find out what the rest of the country thinks too.
That outcome is far less certain. – © Guardian News and Media 2012
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