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.

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And yet what few predicted was Ryan's skill as a campaigner. He has proved to be a kind of boy wonder, bringing youth and spirit to the ticket and firing up a sometimes lackluster Romney at their joint campaign events. "There's obvious energy when they're together," says one campaign aide. Ryan is even keeping the race close in his Democratic-leaning home state of Wisconsin. As Election Day approaches, a new reality has begun to emerge: Ryan may have been a smart pick for Romney despite his policy positions, not because of them.

Running on, and Away from, Medicare

Vice Presidential nominees rarely shape the course of a campaign. But Romney's selection of a Congressman famous for budget blueprints so austere that President Obama called them "social Darwinism" stirred unusual passions from the start. The Obama campaign called Ryan "radical" and "extreme," while conservatives saw something closer to deliverance and geared up for an epic clash of policy visions. "In choosing Mr. Ryan, Mr. Romney is betting that Americans ... will reward the candidate who pays them the compliment of offering solutions that match the magnitude of the problems," applauded the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page.

(MORE: Biden vs. Ryan: What to Watch For in the Debate)

Ryan's most significant solution to the debt mess is his plan to overhaul Medicare, a program that--thanks to aging baby boomers, growing life expectancy and rising health care costs--is the fiscal equivalent of an open fire hydrant. His plan would try to contain those costs, which threaten to cripple the federal government with debt, by replacing the program's virtually unlimited reimbursements to physicians with fixed payments to seniors to buy health care. Democrats protest that these "vouchers," as they call them, will lag behind rising health care costs, leaving all but wealthy seniors unable to keep up. Not so, says Ryan, who promises that the plan will drive down overall costs by introducing private-sector competition and giving Medicare patients an incentive to pay attention to what their care costs. (Unlike earlier versions Ryan authored, it will also allow seniors to stay in traditional Medicare, although Democrats say the other changes will badly undermine the core program.)

At first, Romney seemed to embrace the challenge of having a budget cutter like Ryan on the ticket. "Medicare's one of those [things] that's very important to talk about," he said days after tapping Ryan. "We want this debate," Ryan said in Ohio. "We need this debate. And we will win this debate."

(MORE: The Big Idea Guy

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