The Phenom

Paul Ryan made his name as a budget geek. But on the campaign trail he's been more performer than wonk

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Photograph by Peter Bohler for TIME

Paul Ryan watches a movie with his nephew Ty and kids, Liza and Sam. Oct. 2, 2012.

Mitt Romney's running mate was doing what he likes best: wonking out. "I'm kind of a powerpoint guy, so I hope you'll bear with me," Paul Ryan told about 2,000 people at the University of Central Florida gymnasium in Orlando in late September. The two giant screens flanking the stage flashed a rising red line--the U.S.'s current path toward fiscal Armageddon. "This is worse than Europe," he said. "We can't keep spending money we don't have." The next slide showed the flags of foreign countries, including China, that hold U.S. debt. "You lose your sovereignty," he said. "You lose your independence." Heads nodded.

But it was the slide Ryan left out of his presentation that may have said the most. Though he had promised the crowd "specific ideas, specific solutions," he actually didn't detail his plans to tackle the nation's $15 trillion debt. And his presentation, typical of Ryan as he stumps for the GOP ticket this fall, made no mention of his signature idea, adopted by Romney, to overhaul that beloved entitlement program for seniors, Medicare, and limit its growth.

(PHOTOS: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin)

It took a question from the crowd to get the wonk talking specifics. Democrats, warned a silver-haired man, were attacking Ryan's Medicare plan. "They've been trying to intimidate us retirees down here," he said. Though Ryan's plan wouldn't affect people currently 55 or older, he said, many seniors were nonetheless fearful about their benefits. "We need to get that message," the man urged, "out loud and clear."

"You can help us by getting the truth out," Ryan replied from the stage. Barack Obama, he said, is running "a campaign of division and distortion ... And nowhere is that more clear than on the issue of Medicare." Ryan went on to argue that Obama has passed his own cuts to the program and that the Ryan-Romney approach would involve "choice and competition."

The Republican crowd cheered. But the questioner had identified a threat to the GOP ticket in swing states like Florida. Recent polling shows Democrats winning the argument over Medicare, which many voters now call second in importance only to the economy. Romney's choice of Ryan in August "added a new issue to the agenda," says Robert Blendon, who tracks health care opinion at the Harvard School of Public Health. "And the issue is a negative one for the Romney-Ryan team."

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With roughly three weeks left in a long campaign, Romney is feeling the calculated risk he took when he chose Ryan to be his running mate on Aug. 11. The selection thrilled conservatives eager for a bold campaign about entitlements and the size of government, but party strategists warned that he was inviting a savage Democratic "Mediscare" campaign of the sort Ryan's questioner warned him about. Two months later, the strategists are looking prescient. That may be why Romney and Ryan have spent little time promoting a vision of dramatic spending-and-entitlement cuts, maintaining a sharp focus on unemployment and a grab bag of Obama vulnerabilities from Middle East unrest to energy policy. Once famous for his long policy seminars, Ryan has steered clear of specifics. Whereas his predecessor, Sarah Palin, famously went rogue, Ryan has gone vague.

(VIDEO: Paul Ryan Addresses the Republican National Convention)

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