BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — It's safe to say that until recently, Republican Paul Ryan had never visited a lemonade stand with a dozen Secret Service agents in tow. And he almost certainly hadn't discussed the tightness of his shirts during a national radio interview. Or been asked to play "word association" by a TV reporter.
It's a whole new world for the Wisconsin congressman.
In ways large and small, life has changed for Ryan in the two weeks since Mitt Romney named him as running mate. Before that, Ryan was an up-and-coming but little-known House member still untested on the national stage.
Now, he's a GOP vice presidential hopeful whose days are a blur of rallies, fundraising events, local television interviews and plane flights, during which he reads news accounts of the campaign and pores over policy briefing papers on his iPad. Some things, of course, haven't changed. He still adheres to a strict exercise regimen each morning — only these days, he does cardio in the hotel fitness center or works out in his room, instead of the House gym. A single Miller Lite in the evening is his only indulgence.
"Everybody said this would drain me, the road, but it's not. It's great. It actually gives you energy," Ryan told reporters this week on a flight from Virginia to North Carolina, one of a handful of excursions he's made to the press cabin on his plane.
As he campaigns across battleground states in the days leading up to the Republican National Convention, Ryan draws large crowds at his events and is a natural onstage, often appearing more comfortable than Romney before an audience and delivering the campaign's talking points with ease. At a fundraiser in Springfield, Mo., this week, Ryan lent a human touch to the Romney campaign's oft-repeated claim that President Barack Obama likes to promote class warfare by attacking the former Massachusetts governor's wealth.
"When I was a kid growing up working at McDonald's, de-tasseling corn, waiting tables, painting houses, things like that, it never occurred to me that I was stuck in some station, fixed in some class," Ryan told donors. "We shouldn't be preying on people's emotions of fear, envy and anxiety, putting people in a class, dividing people. That's why I don't think this going to work for President Obama."
Ryan also has shown that he knows how to stir up a local crowd.
At a rally in Pittsburgh, he waved a "terrible towel" — the fan prop of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, even though Ryan himself is a die-hard Green Bay Packers supporter. And after a fundraiser in Raleigh, N.C., Ryan purchased a beverage from a group of neighborhood kids running a lemonade stand as his security detail hovered close by.
To be sure, Ryan does what many politicians do, indulging in the same sorts of verbal sleights of hand.
He criticizes pending defense cuts even though he supported a House budget agreement that would allow such cuts to take place. And Ryan blames Obama for excess spending and government debt even though he voted in favor of several spending programs pushed by former Republican President George W. Bush that helped explode the federal deficit, such as the Medicare prescription drug plan.
Ryan largely avoids national news outlets in favor of local interviews in the most competitive states, in part to reach undecided voters in those states but also to avoid the kind of grilling from national reporters that might take him off message. In Roanoke, Va., he told a reporter for a local outlet that he preferred asparagus to cake and agreed to a session of "word association" that produced a question about fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, which had become the focus of controversy over gay marriage.
"Good chicken," Ryan said.
But the local vs. national press strategy doesn't always work.
Ryan found that out when parrying tough question from a Pittsburgh reporter about his views on abortion and rape in the wake of comments by Rep. Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate candidate who stirred a firestorm when he asserted that victims of "legitimate" rape can physically resist pregnancy.
"Should abortions be available to women who've been raped?" KDKA reporter Jon Delano asked Ryan, who has co-sponsored tough anti-abortion legislation with Akin.
Ryan responded: "Rape is rape."
When he has allowed national outlets to interview him, he's tended to stick to conservative-friendly hosts like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who asked Ryan about a host of issues — including his clothing choices on the road.
"You went from very boxy clothes to the slim fit," Ingraham said. "Those shirts are a little tighter than the usual Paul Ryan shirts. The girls at our studio notice."
"Some of 'em are big and some of 'em fit real well," Ryan said.
Ryan's visits to reporters on his plane have been rare but memorable. He came bearing cookies on one occasion and came another time to bid farewell to a reporter decamping to Vice President Joe Biden's campaign. Reporters thrust microphones in his face each time to pepper him with questions.
"Every time I come back here, are you guys going to always do that?" he asked. "Does it have to be so formal?"
In Ryan's new world, the answer is yes.
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