By Craig Gilbert
Driving with Paul Ryan around his congressional district three years ago, I asked him whether he enjoyed politics.
"Actually, I put up with it -- to do policy," he said. "I enjoy the policy debate but do I enjoy politics? No. I enjoy people. I enjoy church festivals and county fairs."
Politics "is not what motivates me," he said. "I'm a policy guy. I like ideas."
Ryan has always downplayed his political side, and his ambition.
But you don't get elected to Congress at 28, vault over 12 more senior colleagues on the Budget Committee, use the unglamorous job of budget chairman to practically dictate your party's domestic agenda, and become the third-youngest vice-presidential candidate since World War II without a keen understanding and some mastery of the political process.
Yes, Paul Ryan is a policy wonk. That is a big part of who he is. And yes, he's a highly ideological politician, steeped in conservative philosophy and doctrine. That is a big part of who he is.
But he is also a very successful politician, and that's a big part of who he is. He got elected as a political rookie in a diverse and competitive district. He worked the district to the point that in most elections he didn't draw a serious opponent. He became one of the most prolific political fundraisers in the House of Representatives.
And without ever holding statewide office, without ever running for national office, and without ever entering the leadership ranks in Congress, he figured out how to project his influence in the conservative movement, in the mainstream and conservative media, and on Capitol Hill.
Winning near-unanimous support from fellow Republicans for his House budgets may be the biggest testament to his political skills, given the how little support in the past there has been in either party for its most controversial piece.
Up to this point, Ryan's career bears the hallmarks of a smart, likable, hard-working pol, as much as it does the hallmarks of a wonky would-be economist or a conservative true believer.
One sign of a successful politician is the ability to operate on two tracks, to excite the base while competing successfully for votes outside the base.
Ryan has done that over his seven House terms. His district is no longer quite the 50-50 battleground it was when Ryan first got elected in 1998, thanks to population trends and two rounds of redistricting. It is about five points more Republican than the state as a whole, judging from recent elections, and two or three points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
But while it skews a little Republican, "I don't come from a ruby red area of America," Ryan told a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
"I've done extremely well at getting crossover votes," Ryan said in an interview last year. "I know people here. I live here. I'm always around I've always been able to cross the current.
Before the 2010 elections, Ryan was practically alone among the most conservative members of the House in representing a district carried by Barack Obama in 2008. And he was unique among them in coming from a blue-collar Midwestern battleground state.
That means Ryan gets blowback for pushing politically divisive proposals such as overhauling Medicare. But it also means he is used to pitching himself and his ideas to independents and even Democrats. He's better than many ideological politicians at talking to people who aren't ideological. He knows how to simplify complicated policy questions. And he's a very effective personal campaigner, unfailingly cheerful, disarmingly solicitous, interested in and curious about people.
"Paul Ryan is a wonderful person. I like him very, very much," says Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, a Democrat who is deeply disdainful of Ryan's policies.
"He is honestly more interested in you than he is in himself. He wants to meet people and hear their story," says his brother Tobin, who said that at the Romney-Ryan rally in Waukesha Sunday, "he could go through that crowd and recognize half of them, and he could tell you stories about them."
Then there's Ryan the practical politician, who is by no means a legislative purist, who will sometimes vote his district not his philosophy, who has certainly adopted politically risky positions but is hardly suicidal. When the polarizing fight over collective bargaining was ripping the state apart last year, Ryan was broadly supportive of fellow Republican, Gov. Scott Walker, but largely ducked comment on the issues in play.
"I'm a federal guy," he told me last year. "I've got enough problems on my hands in Washington. Why would I get involved in that fight?"
Ryan's political skills are now being tested as never before. There will be some very rocky moments, rockier than his bumpy appearance at the Iowa State Fair on Monday. The next few weeks and months will tell how Ryan's abilities as a campaigner and communicator and debater match up with the crushing pressure of a presidential election.