Rep. Ryan built 'clear-minded' reputation as policy point-person, despite 'extreme' label

From underpaid Capitol Hill staffer to vice presidential nominee in two decades.

By Washington standards, that ain't bad.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's rise had been turning heads long before he was announced Saturday as Mitt Romney's running mate. His biography and evolution as a conservative standard-bearer now enter Republican Party history.

Far from the "extreme" ideologue that Democrats try to portray him as, though, the 42-year-old lawmaker has charted a career marked by an approach members of both parties described, in less partisan times, as "serious." Though not afraid to fight on the stump, Ryan's studious and reserved brand of policymaking is one that almost seems anachronistic in an era marked by pin-drop fights over everything but issues.

"The beauty about the guy is he really is who he's advertised as," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who was Ryan's boss in the 1990s during his Senate days, told Fox News.

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Ryan's story started in Janesville, Wis., and never really left. He was born in the southern Wisconsin city in 1970 and has lived there ever since.

Romney cited those roots in introducing his choice Saturday morning in Norfolk, Va. "Paul is a man of tremendous character shaped in large part by his early life," Romney said.

The congressman's father died of a heart attack when the young Paul was still in high school. Paul once recalled in an interview with The New Yorker how he found his father dead in his bed.

"That forced him to grow up earlier than any young man should," Romney said Saturday. "But Paul did."

As Ryan kept roots in Janesville, he also kept a large and growing footprint in Washington dating back to the '90s, gradually earning the respect and following of his Republican colleagues.

Ryan first came to Washington to work for former Sen. Robert Kasten of his home state. He then became a think tank adviser and moved on to be Brownback's legislative director from 1995 to 1997.

He worked odd jobs to pay the bills, as a waiter and fitness trainer and even as a salesman for Oscar Mayer -- once driving the Wienermobile.

Even then, Ryan stood out. Brownback recalled him as a "talented" and "clear-minded" figure who's "just a fun guy, actually, to work with."

Ryan was first elected to Congress when he was just 28. He ran for the House when incumbent Rep. Mark Neumann left to make a bid for Senate. Ryan won with 57 percent of the vote.

From that moment, Ryan steadily worked his way up and developed the reputation he holds today as the party's policy visionary -- the numbers guy with the prescription, he claims, for bringing the wildly out-of-balance budget back under control.

Since 2007, Ryan has been the top Republican on the House Budget Committee. He assumed the chairmanship in 2011, after his party swept the 2010 midterm elections.

Since then, he's followed up with a pair of highly controversial budget proposals -- most controversial because of their call to overhaul Medicare into what is decried by Democrats as a "voucher "system.

The latest plan would offer seniors, a decade from now, government payments to buy private insurance, including the option to stay on the current Medicare fee-for-service plan.

Still, Ryan's record is not one of dyed-in-the-wool conservatism. He voted for the auto industry bailout in 2008. He backed a bill in 2007 to bar employer discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying at the time that his gay friends "didn't choose to be gay." He's even supported -- though not recently -- versions of the controversial policy that offers some children of undocumented immigrants a path to legal status.

Democrats seem likely to ignore Ryan's more moderate leanings. A new Web video out from the Obama team Saturday called Ryan the "mastermind" of the "extreme budget plan" that would hurt everyone from students to seniors.