Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan (Getty Images)
(USA Today) -- Mitt Romney's decision to tap Paul Ryan as his running mate elevates to the national stage a serious-minded policy expert from the heartland who became a philosophical leader of the Republican Party when the GOP took control of the U.S. House less than two years ago.
The Wisconsin Republican unveiled a bold and politically risky budget blueprint in 2011 that would fundamentally restructure the nation's social safety net and overhaul Medicare. Just four House Republicans voted against it, and Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" has been the guiding fiscal vision for the GOP ever since. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not pass the bill.
In his seven terms in the U.S. House, Ryan, 42, has shown a distaste for election-year politics and a sober embrace of the tough policy decisions Washington faces to balance the budget and rein in the deficit. "If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing's ever going to get done," Ryan said in March.
First elected to Congress in 1998 at 28 years old, Ryan already was known on Capitol Hill because he had worked as a congressional aide in two U.S. Senate offices and as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp, the former House member who was the 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee.
Though Ryan's focus has always been fiscal policy, his views have evolved in his 14 years in office. During his first run for the southeastern Wisconsin congressional district that includes his hometown, Janesville, Ryan campaigned on pledges to preserve the Social Security trust fund and to oppose any tax cuts that were not paid for with spending cuts. In 2004, he endorsed President Bush's unsuccessful effort to partially privatize Social Security retirement accounts, and he voted in favor of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts that were not offset by spending cuts.
He served largely as a back-bench lawmaker until the 2008 financial crisis, when the party's need for cogent voices on the economy elevated his profile. He was the top Republican on the House Budget Committee at the time, but Democrats controlled the chamber.
Ryan, along with now House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., branded themselves the "Young Guns" for the Republican Party and released a book in September 2010 outlining their vision.
By the time Republicans took control of the House in 2010, Ryan was viewed inside Washington as one of the party's brightest young stars. Republicans in Congress cheered his selection as Romney's running mate. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has echoed Ryan's calls for fiscal restraint, praised it as "a bold, outstanding pick." Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said she would be honored to campaign "shoulder to shoulder" with a Romney-Ryan ticket.
Democrats believe Ryan's elevation to the national stage will reignite a debate over his budget and his plan to overhaul Medicare in particular, which the party believes is electorally toxic among independent and centrist voters. "Now with Congressman Ryan on the ticket, House Republicans face the one thing they hoped to avoid," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who runs the House Democrats' campaign operation.
Like Romney, Ryan has an analytical mind and enjoys poring over data sets and economic projections. He has an affable, Midwestern demeanor and boyish looks that mirror those of Romney's five adult sons, and he embraces a clean-living life similar to that of the Romneys, who do not drink alcohol.
As a young man he was an enthusiastic reader of novelist Ayn Rand and has said her philosophies on individualism and capitalism helped fuel an early interest in politics.
Ryan, who is Catholic, has voted against gay marriage, allowing gay couples to adopt and against the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. He opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
Despite his faith, a group of Catholic nuns has been touring the USA calling Ryan's budget plan immoral because of proposed cuts to programs for the nation's poor. Ryan has defended his budget and his faith, stating that if Washington does not act to fix the nation's fiscal outlook, the poor will be hit the worst.
The combination of a Mormon-Catholic ticket is unprecedented in U.S. history.
Ryan is married and has three young children. He was voted prom king in high school and the biggest "Brown-Noser" in the class of 1988, according to his yearbook. He is a hunting and fishing enthusiast and a fitness fanatic - he is a disciple of Tony Horton's P90X exercise regimen and has said he maintains his body fat at 6% to 8%. Asked by Politico in a 2010 interview to name his biggest vice, he replied: "two cups of coffee every morning." When he walks the halls of the U.S. Capitol, he is regularly seen listening to his iPod - Led Zeppelin is a declared favorite.
He has long been a favorite of the conservative intelligentsia. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, an influential voice among conservatives, has lauded his economic vision and last week offered its endorsement of him as vice presidential contender - a nod echoed by other influential conservative voices including William Kristol, who also encouraged Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008.
Though Ryan's intellectual bona fides are clear, he does not have a significant record of translating his visions into law or a broad portfolio outside the fiscal realm. He asked Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, not to put him on the "Super Committee" that failed to reach a deal last year on a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package. Ryan said he would instead address the nation's budget problems from his perch on the Budget Committee.
Ryan has not said whether he will seek re-election to his congressional district. Wisconsin law allows Ryan to appear on the ballot for both offices, so he could continue to serve in the U.S. House if he wins re-election but loses on the national ticket.
Democrats have targeted Ryan for defeat since his first election, but he has handily won re-election in a classic swing district that voted for Obama in 2008.