Is Wisconsin's Paul Ryan Too Bold for the GOP?

Wisconsin's Paul Ryan has an 87-page plan to cut spending and taxes. Republicans are nearly as leery of Ryan's proposal as Democrats are

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Jon Lowenstein for TIME

United States Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin's First District talked to constituents at the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin. He also entered a goat milking contest. Ryan is a Republican and a conservative.

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Ryan replies by noting that someone has to go first. "I really sincerely hoped that a few other people from both parties would start throwing their plans out there, and then we'd get into the business of debating these things. But unfortunately, we're going to have to go through another round of turning these things into third rails and political weapons," Ryan says in an interview in his office.

If Ryan is the most intellectually serious Republican at the moment, that's no guarantee he'll be successful. Only 13 GOP House members have endorsed his Roadmap. "Parts of it are well done," House minority leader John Boehner says but then pauses. "Other parts I've got some doubts about, in terms of how good the policy is." For now, it's mostly Democrats who love Ryan. His plan, says Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, "is a gift. I totally respect Paul's courage for putting this out there. But we're going to spend a lot of time talking about how we'll be fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare." Ryan is philosophical about his predicament. "The appetite is much stronger outside the Beltway than inside," he says. "The political class up here is in the old thinking, which is, This is such a political weapon, don't touch it, don't touch it, don't touch it, you'll die. Because they listen to the pollsters."

That's the sort of remark you'd expect from a man who was first elected to Congress at the age of 28. Born in Janesville, Wis., a union-heavy auto town, Ryan got a double degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. There he found a mentor in conservative economist Richard Hart, who helped Ryan win an internship and then a job in the office of Senator Bob Kasten, a Wisconsin conservative. After that, Ryan touched all the stations of the conservative cross, working for Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, writing speeches for Jack Kemp's vice-presidential campaign in 1996 and then doing a stint for Kemp and Bill Bennett at Empower America, a GOP think tank.

Married with three kids, Ryan is a health nut: he runs a grueling daily exercise class in Washington for members of Congress--think 200 push-ups. "My dad always said, 'It's not worth doing something if it's not hard,'" Ryan notes. "The deficit--that's the hardest problem we have, and that's why I'm working on it. I just hope enough people join me so that we can actually do something about it."

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