Unlike some of his colleagues in Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan doesn't appear to be laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential bid.
But unlike potential White House hopefuls, such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ryan has this year stayed away from primary battleground states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Some conservative leaders say Ryan would be a greater help to his party by staying focused on his job as House Budget Committee chairman, instead of mulling a White House run in 2016.
"My argument against Paul Ryan as a candidate is wholly based on the fact that we need him exactly where he is, holding the House of Representatives together and setting the agenda for the entire party. Whoever wins the presidency will pass the Ryan budget," said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.
Ryan has many options in the House, Norquist said, noting he could seek another waiver to stay on as Budget chairman, mount an effort to become Ways and Means Committee chairman in 2015 or launch a leadership bid.
GOP strategists say Ryan may be deferring to his friend, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who traveled to Iowa in May to attend a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).
Ryan and Walker might jump into the 2016 GOP presidential primary, but it's more likely they’ll hash out an understanding before squaring off as rivals.
“Could both of them run? Sure. Is it more realistic to think they’d sit down and have a candid conversation? Both of these guys are such straight-up, honest people. I think they would be candid instead of play games,” said Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin-based political consultant.
A GOP strategist speaking on background said Ryan is genuinely undecided about running for president in three years.
“There are a range of candidates, some of whom are very obviously leaning in the direction of running,” said the strategist, citing Paul, Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). “Then you have some people who are generally undecided or reluctant, and I put Paul [Ryan] or Jeb Bush in that category.
“It’s not a lifelong ambition for [Ryan],” the strategist added.
Ryan will be the headline speaker at a birthday party fundraiser for Branstad in November but otherwise has stayed far less visible in primary battlegrounds than other possible presidential contenders. He has no plans to travel to New Hampshire or South Carolina in 2013.
Paul, by contrast, attended Iowa’s Lincoln Day dinner in May and met with religious leaders in the Hawkeye State in July. In New Hampshire, he attended a state Republican fundraiser and has planned another fundraiser for the New Hampshire GOP in Washington.
Rubio visited Iowa shortly after the 2012 election and called party leaders in New Hampshire in June to build up his relationships. He earned points by funding television ads through his leadership PAC to defend Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) from attacks by gun control groups.
Cruz and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) spoke to conservative activists at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, earlier this month.
Ryan kept a lower profile this summer, and his public appearances indicate he remains focused on the House. For example, he described his vision for immigration reform at a town hall meeting in Racine, Wis., in late July.
Ryan’s allies argue he has had a major influence on the GOP from his perch in the lower chamber.
“Paul has been, in so many ways, I think, an intellectual driving force in the party. Among elected officials, there are few people who have been sounding out the alarm on the cost of our entitlements and budgetary challenges longer and more assertively than Paul,” said former Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.), who developed a friendship with Ryan after they were both elected to the House in 1998.
Ryan’s biggest contribution to the debate in Congress has been to convince reluctant Republicans to support a budget plan that sought to reduce the cost of Medicare and Social Security.
“He’s a crucial, central intellectual figure in the party,” said Peter Wehner, a former mentor of Ryan’s when they both worked at Empower America in the 1990s.
Wehner explained it was not easy to persuade the House GOP conference to embrace entitlement reform, especially after former President George W. Bush suffered a quick political defeat when he tried to reform Social Security in 2005.
“Republicans were very skittish, historically have been skittish about taking on entitlements for understandable reasons,” he said.
Wehner, a former White House adviser, said he remembers that some GOP House leaders initially were very skeptical about entitlement reform when Ryan pushed it.
“There was some resistance and concern and reluctance among the Republican leadership the first time he pushed it,” he said. “I remember some people from the outside who were conservative who were making the case against pushing these reforms of Medicare.”
That’s a big reason that conservative activists like Norquist who want to see tax and entitlement reform say Ryan should stay in Congress. Norquist added that he believes Ryan, 43, will be president some day.
GOP leaders may also prefer to see Ryan focused exclusively on the chamber’s business because he has served as an invaluable liaison to House conservatives.
Ryan gave House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a crucial boost on New Year’s Day when he voted for the controversial "fiscal-cliff" package. Boehner’s top deputies, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), voted no.
Ryan has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and his arguments in private GOP conference meetings will likely be needed to persuade wavering lawmakers to support action on an issue party leaders say is necessary to build support among Hispanic voters.
Some political observers believe Ryan's short-term goal is to become head of the Ways and Means panel, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, taxes, trade and Social Security. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who heads the committee now, is term-limited after this Congress. Running for president while simultaneously heading the Ways and Means panel could be difficult tasks to juggle.
A spokesman for Ryan declined to comment for this article.