Speaker Ryan emerges as counterweight to Trump

 
 
The contrast is stark between Ryan, the GOP’s highest-ranking elected official, and Trump, the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination. 
 
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The message Ryan promotes in regular media appearances stresses inclusiveness and optimism, under the banner of a “Confident America.”
 
Trump’s latest book, meanwhile, is titled “Crippled America."
 
As the GOP primary contest rolls on, Ryan has been trying to use his clout to advance his preferred message. This month, the Speaker hosted a presidential candidate forum in South Carolina on reducing poverty, an issue he highlighted again with his choice of State of the Union guests.
 
And late last year, Ryan even sparked presidential chatter among House Republicans after he gave a speech at the Library of Congress vowing to present a bold conservative agenda in 2016.
 
Trump has maintained his commanding lead atop the Republican field over the last six months in part by tapping into voter anger and frustration.
 
“Our healthcare is a horror show. ... We have no borders,” Trump said at Thursday’s presidential debate in Charleston, S.C. “Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry.”
 
At last month’s presidential debate in Las Vegas, Trump declared: “Nothing works in our country.”
 
Other Republican presidential candidates are increasingly mimicking Trump’s rhetoric.
 
“If we don't get this election right, there may be no turning back for America. We're on the verge of being the first generation of Americans that leave our children worse off than ourselves,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at Thursday’s debate.
 
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of voters: “They know that this country is not respected around the world anymore. They know that this country is pushing the middle class, the hardworking taxpayers, backwards.”
 
Ryan has taken a decidedly softer tone.
 
“The country is crying out for solutions. The country is crying out to be unified. The country is crying out for a positive vision that brings us all together. We want a confident America. And now is the time to get to work,” Ryan said Friday at the close of the GOP retreat in Baltimore, Md. 
 
Some House Republicans acknowledge the contrast.
 
“We are putting together our aspirational agenda. And it probably lines up well with most of the presidential candidates, but not necessarily all of them,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
 
Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has been careful not to insert himself into 2016 politics. He has said repeatedly that he will back whoever wins the nomination — even if it’s Trump or his top rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
 
When he did condemn Trump’s controversial proposal to ban Muslims from the U.S. last month, Ryan avoided mentioning the real estate mogul by name.
 
Despite noting, unprompted, that the GOP agenda will likely be finished before the nominating process is over, Ryan insisted that House Republicans aren’t crafting ideas to steamroll the eventual nominee.
 
“We’re not sitting here thinking about who the nominee is going to be. We don’t have time to think about that,” Ryan said, adding that he didn’t even watch Thursday night’s debate.
 
But between promoting an agenda and coordinating this week's official GOP State of the Union response, Ryan has been exerting a subtle influence on the race in recent days.
 
The Speaker’s office denies playing a significant role in South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's State of the Union rebuttal that took aim at Trump, although Ryan played a key part in recruiting her for the speech.
 
In her remarks, Haley warned Americans not to listen to the “siren call of the angriest voices.” She later acknowledged that Trump was one of the voices she was referring to.
 
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) suggested that Capitol Hill Republicans have a better chance of influencing the eventual nominee by pushing their ideas early in the process.
 
“It's better to try to convince the presidential candidates while they're running as opposed to after they are already president,” Turner said.
 
Scott Wong contributed.