Mitt Romney listens as Rep. Paul Ryan speaks at a rally in Manassas, Va. (Saul Loeb / AFP/GettyImages…)
JANESVILLE, Wis. — In this blue-collar town, where Mitt Romney's running mate,Paul D. Ryan, grew up and still lives, the extended Ryan family is something of an institution. For many locals, the Ryans have a mystique reminiscent of another, more famous Irish American Catholic family.
"We always compared them to the Kennedys," said Jan Campbell, a neighbor whose father was a law partner with Ryan's father. "They even played touch football on Thanksgiving."
David Barry, who has lived across the street from Ryan for almost a decade, said his neighbor's "energy, youth, patriotism … always reminded me of a young Jack Kennedy."
The Ryans have known tragedy — at 16, Ryan, one of four children, found his father dead in bed of a heart attack at age 55 — but they aren't known for much personal drama.
On Saturday, neighbors and friends described the Ryans as down-to-earth and unpretentious, though not exactly average.
In Washington, Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee. His relentless drive to reduce the deficit, cut taxes and trim spending — including for entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — has turned him into an intellectual hero to some, and to others an ideologue intent on dismantling the social safety net.
But to his Janesville neighbors, Ryan is a Green Bay Packers devotee, a camper and an avid bowhunter, known to rise before dawn during deer season and return at night after a day alone in the woods. His Facebook page features a photo of him with a large buck.
Ryan's wife, Janna, is a stay-at-home mom and "American Idol"fan with a law degree from George Washington University. Neighbors say the couple, parents of Sam, 7, Charlie, 9, and Liza, 10, used to be regulars at high school basketball and football games, major social events in town.
Barry said he marveled at seeing Ryan on television as his political profile rose. "I never really saw that he had ambitions of trying to go up the political ladder. I never saw that. I believe that's just a byproduct of his work and his personality," he said.
Indeed, many in Washington — and Ryan himself — often say the congressman is not known for the kind of ambition that fuels the town like electricity. According to the Almanac of American Politics, when Ryan was mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, he told a Milwaukee TV station, "My head's not that big and my kids are too small."
Still, becoming the intellectual leader of the GOP takes some ambition.
Ryan earned the praise and attention of many conservatives when he confronted President Obama over details of his healthcare reform plan. He treads where other elected officials fear to go, suggesting in 2011 that Medicare be replaced with a voucher system, though this year he modified his stance.
"I've been hugging these third rails for years now, and I didn't die," he told The Times last spring. "I'm trying to show my colleagues you can do this."
He earned the enmity of many social conservatives when in 2007 he supported a bill that would have outlawed employment discrimination against gays. In 2008, he voted for the auto bailout, something Romney, opposed.
Ryan is something of a fitness nut. He is a former personal trainer who carries about 163 pounds on his 6-foot-2-inch frame, reportedly with 6% to 8% body fat. He told CNN he sometimes regretted his decision not to pursue competitive skiing.
Most mornings, he works out with a group of youngish congressmen in the House gym. In March 2010, he told Politico that his workout of choice was P90X, the popular program that puts users through an ever-changing daily routine of cardio, pull-ups, push-ups, karate and yoga.
After his morning workouts, Ryan powers through the halls of Congress with a heavy metal soundtrack coursing through his iPod earbuds. Affable, if intense, he can be a bit of a loner among his peers, a one-man brain trust deeply absorbed in economic issues.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, recalls sitting next to Ryan on the House tax committee early in their congressional careers, and discovering a serious, passionate ally.
"He decided he was going to go to Washington to have a cause, not a career," Cantor said Saturday. "It was then we really started to talk about a much different angle — an agenda for the party."
A generation younger than Romney, Ryan was born in 1970, the same year as Romney's oldest son, Tagg.
Patrick Hessenauer, whose younger brother was friends with Ryan, said neighborhood kids called Ryan "Petey" (after "The Little Rascals" dog with the black circle around his eye) because he was always getting into schoolyard tiffs.