The biggest test of Paul Ryan's political career is about to begin.
The Wisconsin lawmaker and Budget Committee chairman is enjoying the honeymoon period as Mitt Romney’s running mate, drawing large and energized crowds at rallies and mostly positive coverage from national and local press.
“In the last couple of days, he's gone from double-A baseball to the major leagues,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “In terms of the spotlight, less than half of Americans even knew who he was. We can say inside the Beltway he's one of the leaders of the GOP House, but he's going to TMZ rock-star scrutiny, and that’s hard for anyone.”
Strategists note that Ryan is largely unknown on the national scene, and has never before experienced the punishing grind and wall-to-wall media coverage of a presidential race.
“People like to say what they would do on the campaign trail, but it's a whole other matter when you're actually in the trenches,” O’Connell said.
The congressman has built a reputation inside the Beltway as a talented politician with a dazzling grasp of policy, but is also seen as a sometimes distant and prickly figure. Over the years, he’s kept reporters at arm’s length by walking the halls of Congress with a prominently displayed iPod and headphones.
"He does have a reputation of being standoffish, but that comes with the territory of a person who is very focused and determined and has goals to achieve," said one Republican adviser. "He's not there to make friends, he's there to get things done."
And while Ryan can sometimes let his guard down with reporters, he has often shied away from sharp political rhetoric, preferring instead to delve into the nuts and bolts of the budget.
That wonky approach has served him well on Capitol Hill, but could be a liability if it prevents him from connecting with voters as Romney’s running mate.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Ryan has proven this week that he knows how to stay “30,000 feet above the fine print” and engage in the retail politicking required by a presidential campaign.
"He can patiently explain the budget issues in 10 seconds, two minutes or 10 minutes, depending on the audience," Bonjean said. "He already has shown the ability to connect with voters while at the same time explaining important policy matters with them. He's instantly making an emotional connection.”
One Republican lawmaker said Ryan would have to be careful that the press doesn’t twist his words as he talks about his budget plan and lays out a vision for the country.
"Paul's challenge, because he is smarter than most reporters, will be making sure the sound bite accurately reflects what he intended to communicate," said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).
So far, Ryan seems to be comfortable with his newfound celebrity. He is thrilling the large crowds that are turning out to see him, earning multiple standing ovations as he runs through his stump speech.
Visiting Iowa on Tuesday, the vice presidential hopeful was interrupted repeatedly by protesters denouncing his budget's effects on Medicare and the poor. But Ryan kept his cool, chuckling about the catcalls and using the moment to play up his Midwestern roots.
"It's funny. It's funny because Iowans and Wisconsinites like to be respectful of one another and peaceful with one another and listen to one another," Ryan said. "These ladies must not be from Iowa or Wisconsin."
The Romney campaign seems delighted with how the veep pick is faring so far, sending an email to reporters each morning detailing the favorable front-page coverage from local papers of Ryan's appearances.
Bonjean said Ryan’s success shouldn’t be a surprise. He's no stranger to a tough race, having won his congressional seat in 2010 with 68 percent of the vote despite President Obama carrying his district by a slim margin in 2008.
"Ryan is a focused and determined elected official who chooses who he is open with or is accessible to," Bonjean said. "But if you look what he does with his district, he has a mobile constituent service center, so he's extremely accessible to voters back home, which is extremely important."
Still, the Romney campaign has been cautious about overexposure this week, limiting Ryan to a single solo televised interview with Fox News and restricting press access to early finance events that Ryan attended.
That could be a smart strategy as Ryan adjusts to the national stage. O’Connell said there are inevitably growing pains for any politician entering a race for the White House.
“It even took the president awhile to get the hang of it,” O’Connell said. “[Obama] stood up and said he had visited all 57 states [in 2008] … and he's really good at this.”