"You never get away...Everybody wants you." -Billy Squier, 1982

The speculation began immediately on Friday morning when word broke that 76-year-old Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) wouldn't seek re-election to a fifth-term.

Few believed Kohl would run again. But the quirky, often hermetic Kohl apparently didn't even tell his aides nor alert fellow members of Wisconsin's Congressional delegation of his decision ahead of time.

I informed Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) of Kohl's decision in the hallway near the House chamber during a voting sequence. The Congresswoman was visibility shaken by the news.

"I'm stunned," said Moore as she processed the impact of Kohl's retirement. "He's the top of our ticket."

Before ducking into the Democratic Cloakroom, Moore expressed her concern for what Kohl's retirement could mean for President Obama's re-election chances and his quest to capture the Badger State's 10 electoral votes.

If you've resided in an alternate universe for the past seven months, Wisconsin has emerged as the country's primary political epicenter. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) upended liberal Sen. Russ Feingold (R-WI) last fall. Voters also handily elected Gov. Scott Walker (R). Walker promptly ignited an epic political melee with the state's public employees as he moved to eliminate many collective bargaining provisions. Walker's efforts spurred a weeks-long sit-in by protesters in the Wisconsin statehouse. Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to hinder the body from voting on Walker's proposal because it lacked a quorum.

The state also flipped two House seats from blue to red. Longtime Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) retired. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) became the first Republican to represent that seat since 1969. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) also defeated Rep. Steve Kagen (D-WI).

This stands in stark contrast to 2008 when the president handily defeated Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in Wisconsin by 14 points.

The political fates have turned in Wisconsin. French leader Charles de Gaulle famously asked how someone could govern a nation that features 246 different kinds of cheese? With its cheeseheads and Packers fans, Wisconsin rivals France. And that makes Wisconsin the new Ohio when it comes to politics in 2012.

So who runs to succeed Kohl?

Democrats are already courting the vanquished Feingold. And sources indicate that Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is "very likely" to run. If successful, Baldwin would become the Senate's first openly gay member.

And Republicans see Wisconsin as prime territory for a potential Senate pickup next year.

Which is why speculation immediately turned to House Budget Committee Chairman and fiscal-guru-in-residence Paul Ryan (R-WI).

A Feingold-Ryan clash would be seismic, quickly thrusting the contest into the national media spotlight. The president's need to carry the state would punctuate the race further.

A Feingold-Ryan encounter would serve as a proxy war between the seminal ideologies that now divide American politics. Feingold engineered one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate as he served alongside President Obama. Meantime, Ryan is the architect of the GOP's spending reform agenda. The "Ryan Budget" is the touchstone of Republican efforts to curb spending, embrace conservative principles and reject the president's policies.

But it is far from certain that Ryan will enter the race.


The courtship of Paul Ryan has been one of the most fabled stories in Republican politics over the past decade. Ryan is young, telegenic, dynamic and whip-smart. He lived down the street from me when we were both students at Miami University (OH), but we didn't really know each other. Many political observers have tried to cast Ryan as the savior of the party. Some have gone as far to project Ryan as a potentially transformative figure, an icon like Ronald Reagan.

Everybody wants you...

In 2008, there was chatter that John McCain should try to tap Ryan as his vice presidential running mate. The release of Ryan's budget intensified speculation that the Congressman could run for president in 2012. That talk could intensify if Republicans continue to show dissatisfaction with the current field of presidential contenders.

The GOP entrusted Ryan to deliver the party's official response to Mr. Obama after his State of the Union address in January. Time listed Ryan as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World." And as a new Republican majority sought to make good on its campaign promises, Ryan was the man of the hour.

Everybody wants you...

Ryan put the presidential talk to rest earlier this year.

"There is a zero percent chance I will be seeking the Republicans' nomination for president in 2012," Ryan said at the time.

After the GOP's electoral slaughter in 2008, there was an active effort to court Ryan to challenge then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

Ryan declined.

"My first priority in life will always be my wife and my three young children. As I reflect upon the strains that this position would place on my young family, I have decided not to enter my name as a candidate for House Minority Leader," Ryan said.

But the talk continued.

The GOP assembled its "Young Guns" team in an effort to win control of the House. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) were the main drivers behind the Young Guns effort. Cantor and McCarthy always included Ryan as part of the trio because he was one of the young, enterprising faces of the party. But Ryan's not cut from the same political cloth as Cantor and McCarthy. Cantor is a prolific fundraiser. McCarthy is a strategic tactician.

Ryan is a numbers guy.

A numbers guy as in budget deficits, Gross Domestic Product, Laffer Curves and other green eye shade prattle. And for that, there are few posts better for Ryan than the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee as the country stares at one of its most daunting fiscal crises.

Would Ryan this abandon an assignment like this, at a time like this, to run for the Senate?

Like Gwen Moore, Ryan too said he "was surprised" by Kohl's announcement. But unlike Ryan putting the kibosh on a presidential bid, the Wisconsin Republican far from vacuum sealed himself against a Senate bid.

In a statement, Ryan said he wanted "to take some time over the next few days to discuss this news with my family and supporters before making any decision about how I'm best able to serve my employers in the First Congressional District, our state and nation."

Ryan is something else besides a numbers man. He's also a family man.

Politicians wrap themselves in the mantle of God and family all the time. But Ryan is different. He has three kids with ages all in the single digits. Ryan's own father died of a heart attack when the Congressman was 16. Ryan found the body.

In media interviews, Ryan has described the death of his father as a central moment in his life. And it's likely that Ryan's commitment to his young family will be crucial factor as he decides whether or not to run for Kohl's Senate seat.

Everybody wants you...


The timing of Kohl's announcement couldn't be more dynamic for Ryan. On Monday, Ryan speaks about his framework for slashing the deficit at the Economic Club of Chicago, right in the "backyard" of President Obama.

A few weeks ago, the president summoned Ryan and other key Congressional figures to George Washington University to talk about his own deficit reduction goals. And once he had the Janesville, Wisconsin native seated in the front row, Mr. Obama blasted Ryan's budget outline.

"There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There's nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill," lectured the president.

The Wall Street Journal described Ryan as becoming "visibly annoyed during the speech, shaking his head in disgust." At the end of the address, Ryan high-tailed it back to Capitol Hill.

On Monday, Ryan returns the favor. And reporters and supporters alike will cull Ryan's remarks for signals about his political future.

There is an insatiable appetite for Paul Ryan. Calls for interviews. Calls to run for the Senate. Calls to run for president. Calls to run for vice president.

Ryan's only 41. If he doesn't run for the Senate, there's always next time. There are plenty more presidential elections, too.

Ryan's about two things. Family and numbers. And balancing that equation doesn't always work in politics.

And until Ryan makes a move, this lionization could continue. Perhaps for years.

"You never get away...Everybody wants you."