CLINTON, Iowa — Paul Ryan is hard to get a fix on these days.
There was the fearless Ryan who conservatives believed--at least for about 20 minutes after Romney selected him to rockstar fanfare--would bring his spartan fiscal policy to the debate, propelling the Republican ticket to capture 51 percent in a national election.
And then there is the Ryan of now: almost-invisible on the campaign trail, a man who picks his policy spots with care, and who has devoted an increasing share of his diminished voice to complaining about the press.
Traveling with Ryan has been a study in the contrast between those characters, and what seems at times to be a tension between them. And as the 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin prepares to face Vice President Joe Biden on the biggest night of his life in next week’s vice presidential debate, aides are still not sure which Ryan will take the stage.
When Ryan first introduced his eponymous budget in 2009, he was heralded as a new kind of Republican politician. He grabbed the third rail with both hands, and made the case to both parties that very conservative ideas about the size of government could sell to the majority of Americans — a claim that had long been the province of professional ideologues, but not professional politicians.
And Ryan, the Congressman, was a media star: More than 100 television hits on Cable TV (more than half of them on Fox News,) countless print interviews and a specific focus on financial television: Bloomberg Television appearances — and nearly a dozen CNBC “Squawk Box” guest-hosting appearances.
But now, less than two months since his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan is straining to find a voice. His selection was heralded as meaning a campaign of big bold ideas — which the Romney campaign promptly hedged and abandoned.
And while Ryan faded quickly behind Romney as the campaign’s star, many analysts in both parties blame him in part for the drop in the polls.
Ryan, in turn, has pushed internally to defend his policy views in public, people around him say. He has also taken to complaining publicly about the press.
On Fox News Sunday, Ryan ripped much of the press for being “left of center” and wanting to elect a left of center president.
“As a conservative, I've long believed and long felt that there is inherit media bias,” he told Chris Wallace. “And I think anybody with objectivity would believe that that's the case.”
In the same interview Ryan drew criticism for not being forthcoming about the math behind the Romney-Ryan tax plan — a charge the candidate is particularly sensitive to.
At nearly every campaign stop he reminds voters that the GOP ticket is the more substantive one.
“Mitt Romney has put more specifics, more details about how to grow the economy, about how to save Medicare, Social Security, about how to prevent the debt crisis than the incumbent President of the United States has,” he regularly asserts.
But at a town hall earlier this week, Ryan was called out about evading the question on Fox. He answered by launching into an exasperated, seven-minute recitation of the campaign’s bullet-points — culminating in a critique of the sound-bite nature of television appearances.
“The problem is, it just took me about five minutes to go into all of this with you. And you’re on a 30-second TV show — you can’t do this much.
One thread running through many of Ryan’s and his aides’ complaints: a double-standard they see between him and Vice President Joe Biden.
In a contrast with the Romney campaign, which uses Paul Ryan push a substantive argument against Obama, Chicago deploys Biden more sparingly — part attack dog and part cruise director. “Uncle Joe” is only occasionally heard from and rarely questioned — a reality the Romney campaign, and particularly those close to Paul Ryan, have bristled at.
“Every morning I check the milk carton for Joe Biden’s picture,” Ryan press secretary Michael Steel told BuzzFeed. “He’s gone missing.”
“Joe Biden gets used by the Obama Campaign like Bernie from "Weekend at Bernie's," said a Republican close to the campaign. ”They drag him out to a battleground state, prop him up on a podium in front of a teleprompter, pose him for photos with locals, and then quickly roll him back to Air Force 2 after before reporters have a chance to ask him questions. They want Biden to be seen, but not heard in any interviews because they're afraid he might embarrass the President with another one of his hilarious gaffes. When is the last time the Vice President did a Sunday Show or even a single local TV interview?”
(It's a claim the Obama campaign rejects: "Day after day, event after event, the Vice President has been traveling across the country all year making the case about what’s truly at stake in this election, taking Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan’s agenda head on and making clear why President Obama is the right choice for middle class families,” said an Obama campaign aide in response to the Ryan charge. “In more than 100 events this year, the Vice President has been campaigning in states across the country directly connecting with voters in their communities.”)
But Ryan's camp likes to draw the contrast between the two men: Ryan, the campaigns says, has sat for more than 167 interviews since joining the ticket — a number increasing daily — including 26 national TV, 111 local/regional TV, 14 radio interviews, and16 print.
But despite that impressive number, it's as if he's done them with his larynx removed. He has not made much news at all--and that seems an intentional choice coming from Boston. Ryan is usually asked roughly the same questions about Medicare and taxes and he stays within the lanes of the campaign's hazy policy plans, not his specific ones.
On his swing through Iowa this week, Ryan invited a host of local and national reporters onto his bus — including Mark Liebovich of The New York Times. Biden’s last major media event was an interview with New York Magazine’s John Heilemann before the conventions.
But the contrast between Biden’s and Ryan’s public images rests more centrally on two opposing views of how Vice Presidential candidates are to be deployed.
While in the days before the Ryan selection, Romney aides repeatedly insisted that voters don’t vote for the bottom of the ticket, that maxim has now been replaced by the claim that this election is now a choice between two candidates — a choice Ryan has helped to define and polarize.
And with Romney running an exceptionally light schedule for a non-incumbent candidate, Ryan is left picking up the slack — and the duty of explaining their policies to the American public.