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Ryan Needs To Conquer Wonk Reputation In Debate


Republicans are hoping for some more touchdowns tomorrow night, from Paul Ryan. He'll face Joe Biden in the campaign's only vice presidential debate. And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, it will be a key test for the Republican.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is known less for hard-hitting debate skills, than for his professor-like budget talks. Here he is challenging President Obama, at the 2009 House Republican retreat.


REP. PAUL RYAN: I serve as the ranking member of the budget committee, so I'm going to talk a little budget, if you don't mind.


RYAN: The spending bills that you have signed into law, the domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent. You now want to freeze spending at this elevated level, beginning next year. This means that total spending in your budget would grow at three-hundredths of 1 percent less than otherwise.

SCOTT ANGUS: He didn't get the reputation as a wonk, for nothing. I mean, that's kind of what Paul has always been. And that's really not what works in a debate setting.

ELLIOTT: Scott Angus is editor of the Gazette in Janesville, Wisconsin, Ryan's hometown. He says this will be a test of Ryan's ability to step back, hit key themes with a broader brush, and show he's capable of leading - skills Ryan has been honing on the campaign trail this fall.


RYAN: Thank you, everybody, for taking the time; for coming out in the rain. Have a seat. Let's have a conversation, OK?

ELLIOTT: At town halls like this one in Cincinnati, Ryan delves deep into debt and deficit figures; breaking them down in a friendly, accessible way.

RYAN: Take a look at the chart over here. We've got a nice LED screen; I think - I hope everybody can see that.

ELLIOTT: Voters may see that neighborly Paul Ryan, or the budget wonk, tomorrow night. But they could also see the seven-term congressman and chairman of the House Budget Committee, who can be a tough verbal combatant. Here he is arguing Social Security privatization with Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on CNN in 2010.


RYAN: What I'm trying to propose, is something responsible. Prevent cuts from hitting current seniors, people near retirement. And then reform these programs, for those of us who are under 54 - because we know they're going bankrupt - and put them on a path of solvency and sustainability. That's the responsible thing to do. And I'd like to get to an adult-level conversation but apparently, we're not having that these days.

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: An adult-level conversation to invest Social Security in Wall Street? If that had happened in the last couple of years, Paul....

RYAN: give people the same plan that you and I have...

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: would have ended the protections that...

RYAN: I want to give younger people the option of having the same retirement you and I have, Debbie, if they want it or not.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Then we need...

ELLIOTT: The vice-presidential debate will be Ryan's second moment before a national television audience since being tapped to join the GOP ticket. His first, a rousing speech at the Republican convention, fired up the party faithful.


RYAN: We will win this - debates.


ELLIOTT: But by morning, he was under fire for distorting his own record in Congress, to score hits against the president. Former Republican congressman Vin Weber, of Minnesota, has known Ryan since his early days in Washington.

VIN WEBER: His whole approach to politics - since I first met him as a young man - was, we want to, in the best sense of the word, win the argument. Don't just trick voters into supporting us; actually convince them that we're right. Win the argument.

ELLIOTT: Weber, now a lobbyist and adviser to the Romney campaign, says even though Ryan, at 42, is the less-experienced of the two debaters, look for him to mix it up with the more seasoned Joe Biden, and paint the vice president as a throw-back to different times.

WEBER: He really is an old-school liberal. I mean, his mindset is back in the days when government could solve every problem by establishing a program to address that problem. And Paul Ryan comes from a generation that has had to face the limitations of government.

ELLIOTT: Expect those philosophies of government to be in stark contrast, when Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden take the stage in Kentucky tomorrow night.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.