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Paul Ryan 2016 Buzz Is Quiet Ahead of Iowa Visit

Paul Ryan 2016 Buzz Is Quiet Ahead of Iowa Visit

By Scott Conroy - July 23, 2013

Not so long ago, a Paul Ryan visit to Iowa would have set off bells and whistles among the Republican activists who hold sway in the nation's first voting state.

Now, it merits merely a ripple of mild interest.

After having said in March he'd give "serious consideration" to the idea of running for president in 2016, Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate is following through by scheduling a trip to Iowa in November as the keynote speaker for Gov. Terry Branstad’s annual birthday fundraiser in Altoona. 

Rep. Ryan’s visit to the nation’s first voting state is a clear effort to keep his name in the 2016 mix, and it replicates Sen. Marco Rubio move to keynote last year’s Branstad birthday bash.

But if he truly has designs on becoming a significant factor in the next presidential race, the onetime GOP vice-presidential nominee has his work cut out for him in a state bordering his native Wisconsin.

Among many Iowa conservatives, there is a prevailing sense that Ryan did himself no long-term favors in the 2012 contest, and there is little palpable excitement over his return to the Hawkeye State. Meanwhile, a host of other prospective 2016 White House GOP hopefuls seemed to be generating more traction there.

“I agree with that assessment that he’s -- I don’t know how you would say it politely -- but diminished from what he would’ve been a couple years ago,” said Chuck Laudner, a well-connected conservative activist in Iowa. “It just occurs to me that there’s nothing memorable there from his experience running for vice president. People remember Palin’s convention speech, and there are many other examples like that. But I was trying to remember what I could recall from Paul Ryan being on the ticket, and I couldn’t come up with anything.”

Ryan was not always an afterthought in Iowa—far from it, in fact. Whenever his name was floated as a potential presidential aspirant before the 2012 GOP field was set, the famous budget hawk sparked widespread interest among Iowa Republicans as one of the few prospective candidates who might finally fill the void for a strong alternative to Romney.

Although Ryan passed on running for president, Romney’s gambit in tapping him as a running mate was greeted with gusto on the right, in Iowa and elsewhere. That sense of enthusiasm evaporated quickly, however, as Ryan largely faded into the background of the 2012 discourse, save for his convention speech and his lone debate against Vice President Biden.

This appears to have happened by design, as the Romney campaign de-emphasized Ryan’s controversial budget plan and confined him largely to the supporting role of a traditional vice-presidential candidate. Now, less than a year after losing what Republicans believed to be a winnable election, there is a desire among key party activists to find a GOP standard-bearer untainted by the stigma of 2012.

And while Ryan was once largely viewed on the right as an insurgent candidate befitting the mood of a combative and ideologically pure generation of Republicans, his association with Mitt Romney is not the only negative for conservatives these days. Ryan’s recent overtures to pro-immigration reform advocates also threaten to leave him branded with the dreaded “establishment” tag. 

“If Paul Ryan does run, it won't be as the conservative darling but instead the establishment figurehead,” said Iowa-based Tea Party activist Ryan Rhodes. “To shake that label, he would need to make some significant changes to his policies.”

In the early jostling for position among the right-leaning activists who dominate the Iowa caucuses, freshman Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have all made big splashes in their sojourns to the state -- with Cruz reportedly making a particularly strong impression during his visit late last week. 

While Ryan now enjoys nearly universal name recognition, his presidential ambitions may also be hampered by the nature of the job to which he has returned in Washington, as Congress continues to suffer from some of its lowest approval ratings in U.S. history.

No sitting member of the U.S. House has been elected president since Ohio congressman James A. Garfield pulled off the feat in 1880 -- and Garfield was both a hero in the Civil War and his party’s nominee for the Senate seat that year.

“There are a lot of young, exciting conservative rising stars within our party, and activists are currently flirting with them,” said one prominent Iowa Republican, who requested anonymity to speak freely about Ryan’s fading star in the state. “That, combined with Paul Ryan taking a low profile following a bruising election and lack of new web videos, means he is often an afterthought.”

Yet those attitudes must be balanced against Iowa’s famous fickleness. The fixations with the candidate du jour often come and go with stunning speed, attested by the rapid-fire ascensions and subsequent declines in the Iowa fortunes of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich.

Ryan will have no shortage of opportunities in the coming months to showcase his legislative bona fides and remind Iowa Republicans that he is still the fiscal wonk he was when he won national plaudits during Obama’s first term.

Some prominent Iowa Republicans remain careful not to discount the idea of a Ryan comeback, even as they have been impressed by the newcomers on the scene.

Longtime Iowa GOP fundraiser Becky Beach added her name to those who were “very impressed” with Cruz, who she drove to different events, but she suggested that Ryan had plenty of time to re-establish himself in the state.

“There hadn't been much talk of Ryan, at least that I'd heard, until the announcement that he's coming for the Branstad birthday event,” Beach said. “People are now starting to talk about him. I don't think the VP loss dimmed his star -- he's just not been in people's thoughts.”

According to a survey conducted earlier this month by the Democratically affiliated Public Policy Polling, Ryan stood in third place at 15 percent among a list of prospective 2016 Republicans in Iowa, coming in behind Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Those early numbers appeared to be based in large part on name identification and figure to change regularly and dramatically over the next couple of years.

In order to compete in what is likely to be a stronger Republican field, replete with charismatic speakers and effective retail politicians, Ryan will have to find a way to rediscover his glow among the rank-and-file -- particularly in Iowa. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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