WASHINGTON — Paul Ryan's mentors have included some of the biggest conservative names of recent decades, among them Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett.
Yet the ideological roots of Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, including his emphasis on individual responsibility and small government, sprouted from Ryan's small-town Wisconsin upbringing and a libertarian college professor. His outlook and career also have been nurtured by a devotee of supply-side economics who is now a top aide to another rising Republican star, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Ryan put his philosophy on display in the fiscal blueprint he pushed through the House this year as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Democrats described it as harsh and made it a favorite campaign target long before Ryan joined Romney's ticket.
Ryan's plan reduces tax rates, slices deeply into benefits for the poor like Medicaid, reshapes Medicare and forces major cuts in basic government functions while boosting defense spending. He does it, in part, in the name of taming mammoth federal deficits, though critics note that his plan would leave sizable annual shortfalls for decades.
"Limited government also means effective government," his budget documents state, summarizing a Ryan tenet.
In his 2009 commencement address at his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, Ryan said liberty requires economic as much as political freedom. He also said people should rely on themselves to achieve their potential and government should not erect hurdles for risk-taking entrepreneurs.
Ryan consults with a stable of conservative economists and scholars, including John Taylor, a Stanford University economist who has had posts in three GOP administrations. He has long praised the works of Ayn Rand, the Russian-born writer who strenuously championed an unfettered capitalism hinged to individual rights and responsibility, but in recent days has distanced himself from her, citing her atheism.
Ryan, 42, said this week that Kemp, the late Republican congressman from New York and exuberant champion of cutting taxes to spark economic growth, "was one of the most important mentors to me." Mirroring Kemp's ideals, Ryan's budget would pare income tax rates in what budget documents call "pro-growth tax reform."
Kemp was his party's vice presidential nominee in 1996, when he and presidential candidate Bob Dole lost to President Bill Clinton. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kemp was a conservative leader and one of Congress' most dynamic members, relentlessly advocating tax cuts that remain a hallmark GOP goal.
After an 18-year career in the House, Kemp was a leader of Empower America, a conservative advocacy organization he helped found in 1993. A year out of college, Ryan went to work there, writing speeches and doing research for Kemp and engaging in long policy discussions with him.
"I was struck that he was so young, and my dad had him working on policy," Judith Nolan, Kemp's daughter, who also worked there, said of Ryan. "He certainly put a lot of trust in him."
"He was primarily interested in economic policy," said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and the group's president. "We all thought he was one of the brightest young guys around there."
Ryan's relationship with Kemp lasted well after both men left the group. They spoke regularly, said Kemp's son Jimmy, who runs the Jack Kemp Foundation.
Jack Kemp, who died in 2009, let Ryan accompany him on his plane during the 1996 presidential campaign and campaigned for Ryan in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., two years later when Ryan was first elected to Congress, Jimmy Kemp said. Jack Kemp's granddaughter later interned in Ryan's congressional office.
Ryan's rhetorical style — less confrontational than the norm in Congress these days — often reflects Kemp's positive, optimistic speeches. Critics say Ryan ignores key aspects of Kemp's views, saying Kemp did not advocate winnowing government and tried to push his party to help minorities and the poor.
"Jack Kemp never talked about cutting spending, ever," said Bruce Bartlett, an economic adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who earlier worked for Kemp. "In fact, he was quite critical of Republicans who thought that was important. He used to call it 'deep root canal economics.'"
Like many who encountered Ryan, Bill Bennett, another Empower America founder, was struck by his curiosity.
Bennett — education secretary under Reagan and drug czar for the first Bush presidency — says he had frequent policy discussions with the youthful Ryan, who requested a reading list. Bennett says the items he suggested included the Bible, Shakespeare, the Constitution and Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."
"He had a basic conservative view" upon arrival at Empower America, said Bennett, who said he still hikes with Ryan. "But it was untutored."
Ryan first worked in Washington in 1991 as a college intern for Sen. Robert Kasten, R-Wis. He caught the eye of a top Kasten aide, Cesar Conda, who offered Ryan a post on Kasten's staff after Ryan's 1992 graduation, his first full-time Washington job.
Like Kemp, Conda was an adherent of "supply-side economics" — the notion that the best way to spur the economy was to let people keep more money by cutting taxes, not increasing federal spending.
"Paul would continually pop in and ask about what Kasten was working on or about this aspect of supply-side economics," said Conda, 51, who later worked for Vice President Dick Cheney and is now Rubio's chief of staff.
Conda gave Ryan two books that are classics among conservative economists: "The Way the World Works" by Jude Wanniski and "Wealth and Poverty" by George Gilder.
Conda played another pivotal role for Ryan. In 2007, Conda was an adviser to Romney's presidential campaign and introduced the two men in Washington. A scheduled 15-minute meeting lasted nearly an hour, Conda said.
"When Gov. Romney and I left, Romney said, 'I really liked him. He's very sharp,'" said Conda.
Family and friends say Ryan was raised by parents who admired both Les Aspin, the local Democratic congressman, and Reagan.
After his three older siblings left home, a 16-year-old Ryan discovered his father, an attorney, dead of a heart attack. Ryan shouldered a pile of household responsibilities, helping care for a live-in ailing grandmother, getting a job at McDonalds and being elected class president, said his brother Tobin.
"Paul learned pretty early to pick himself up by his bootstraps and create something on his own," his brother said.
As a college junior at Miami of Ohio, Ryan studied macroeconomic theory under Professor Richard Hart, a libertarian. Hart says they spent hours discussing the virtues of small government, individual responsibility and free-market capitalism.
In his 2009 commencement speech, Ryan credited Hart for creating "a vision quest in my mind to improve the economy of our nation."
Even so, Hart says Ryan arrived at Miami "with these core conservative beliefs."