Foe says Paul Ryan's local popularity is fading

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Rob Zerban

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan is often mentioned as a running mate for likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But while there are many reasons why Romney might choose Ryan for the national ticket, the spokeswoman for his Democratic congressional opponent says Ryan has become a lightning rod at home, where she contends his popularity is slipping.

“One of the biggest things that we’ve heard as we’re going around the district is that people ... don’t like the fact he’s been in Congress for 14 years and our district has literally nothing to show for it,” said Beth Pramme, communications director for Rob Zerban for Congress. Democrats consider Zerban the first serious challenger Ryan has faced since he began representing the state’s First Congressional District in 1999 at the age of 28.

Ryan “sat there and did nothing following the loss of both a Chrysler and GM plant in the district,” Pramme said. “He’s not helping to bring jobs or anything back to the district. He says government shouldn’t pick winners and losers but that’s exactly what his budget does.”

According to Pramme, the winners under Ryan’s proposed budget are “multi-millionaires who are going to get big tax breaks, big oil and big pharma companies.” Among the losers, she said, are students who will lose their Pell grants and seniors who will see their Medicare costs rise by $6,000 per year.

Prone to speaking in bar graphs as he warns of “a gathering storm” of debt that will challenge America’s way of life, Ryan has mastered the ability to paint a smile on ideas that generations of politicians have found treacherous. He depicts his efforts to scale back federal programs such as food stamps as a means of empowering the downtrodden. He believes government assistance has lulled Americans into complacency, eliminating their drive to succeed on their own and prosper.

Opening Medicare to more private competition, he argues, is about preventing an all-out program collapse that would devastate future retirees.

“He puts on a good face for some pretty awful policies,” said former Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wineke. “He’s a master politician.”

The state’s First Congressional District is a “true swing district,” according to Pramme. It includes all of Kenosha and Racine, and most of Walworth County, except for Whitewater. Heavy with both factories and farms, it’s typically carried by Democratic presidential candidates, but the GOP redrew its boundaries last year to skew more Republican by incorporating a larger portion of Waukesha County.

It’s unclear what effect the new boundaries will have on the 2012 congressional race.

Pramme tried to minimize the impact. Voter turnout for Tom Barrett in the June 5 recall election was higher than it was in 2010 in most areas of the district, except for Waukesha, she said. Pramme added that Zerban’s events in the district are drawing standing-room crowds, as well as video-camera-wielding staff members from Ryan’s campaign.

Those cameras indicate how seriously Ryan regards Zerban as a threat, she said.

Ryan will remain the First Congressional District’s Republican nominee even if Romney does choose him as running mate. Pundits say there are plenty of reasons why Romney might make that choice.

Not only is Ryan the GOP’s leading voice on the budget – and a major cheerleader for what progressives call “the deficit bogeyman” – he’s also from a swing state and is the rare member of the Republican establishment who’s beloved by the Tea Party.

Although Pramme dismisses Ryan’s vaunted reputation as a boy economic genius as a hollow public relations ploy, conservatives eat it up.

“If you look at the reason we do have the deficits we do, it’s the Bush tax cuts that Ryan supported,” Pramme said. “Paul Ryan supported two unfunded wars. When you actually look at what he does, you see that he has zero credibility on deficit reduction issues. ... From what we see in the district, people are starting to understand that now.”

But the global economic crisis and the rise of the Tea Party, with its focused attention on government spending and debt, have made Ryan’s budget plans a GOP litmus test – and Romney has embraced them.

It was Ryan, not Gov. Scott Walker, whom Romney chose to appear at his side during a recent visit to a fabric mill in the congressman’s hometown of Janesville, where the economy is still reeling from the closing of a GM assembly plant a few years ago.

In March, Romney praised Ryan’s latest proposal to slice trillions from the federal bud- get, and Ryan reciprocated soon after with an endorsement of Romney’s White House bid.

Picking Ryan as Romney’s running mate would be read as a full embrace of his budget ideas. But would Ryan return Romney’s interest?

Ryan is being typically coy concerning a potential spot on the Romney ticket. “If that bridge ever came, I would consider crossing it,” he told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month, adding, “I really don’t have tremendous political ambition. I have policy ambition.”

During President George W. Bush’s second term, Ryan pulled his name from consideration for the White House budget director post. He said he didn’t think there was the will in Congress, to address the budget changes he believes are needed to avert a crippling debt crisis.

More recently, Ryan resisted a call to chase retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl’s U.S. Senate seat. “I didn’t want to walk away from the conversation I started and the fight I’m in,” he said.

By remaining in the House, Ryan can keep an intense focus as budget chairman on his signature issue – something he might not be able to do in a Romney administration.