Politics & Policy

Ryan Gets Ready

Paul Ryan’s debate mantra is “Prepare, prepare, prepare.”

Paul Ryan may be the first vice-presidential nominee who once prepped a veep nominee.

In late 1996, Ryan, then 26 years old, worked as a policy adviser for Jack Kemp, a former New York congressman and Bob Dole’s running mate. On the trail, Ryan guided Kemp as he prepared for his October debate with vice president Al Gore. The official prep sessions, however, were mostly a disaster. Kemp rarely practiced, and when he did, he lost his temper. At one mock debate, according to writer Robert Draper, Kemp “shot the bird” at Senator Judd Gregg, who was playing Gore, and stormed out of the room.

#ad#Once Kemp took the stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., he was hardly ready to challenge the Clinton-Gore record. He did not have an array of facts and figures memorized. Instead, he leaned on clunky anecdotes and platitudes. The entire exchange was tepid, and Kemp flopped, even in the eyes of his friends. “Within minutes it was apparent that Kemp was not prepared,” recalls Ed Gillespie, a Romney adviser, in his book Winning Right.

Ryan, of course, was a lowly Kemp aide, and it was not his responsibility to corral his gregarious boss. But 16 years later, as Ryan prepares for his own vice-presidential debate, his mentor’s stumbles are fresh in his mind. According to a Ryan insider, “Paul may be over preparing, just because he knows how important this is” — for the Romney campaign and for his reputation as the intellectual leader of the Republican party.

“Jack was a virtuoso and a genius, but he was not the most diligent student before the debate,” says Bill Bennett, a former education secretary who worked with both Kemp and Ryan in the early 1990s. “I remember Paul had these huge, loose-leaf binders he’d carry around. Afterward, he probably knew that it wasn’t a good night for Jack. But Paul is a different creature, a creature of habit and self-discipline, and I know he will be ready.”

For much of last week, Ryan was at Wintergreen, a sprawling resort in central Virginia. Under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ryan and his advisers quietly reviewed policy papers, held several mock debates, and kept distractions to a minimum. BlackBerries and iPhones were switched off, and Ryan avoided the traveling press.

Yet the Virginia sessions were not the beginning of Ryan’s prep for Thursday’s debate. Soon after the Tampa convention, Ryan convened his inner circle, which includes longtime aides such as Andy Speth and Romney hands such as Dan Senor, and asked them to compile briefing books, much like the binders he used to organize for Kemp. On the campaign plane and at his home in Janesville, Wis., Ryan has been constantly reading the policy books, using his favorite disposable blue pen to make changes.

By mid-September, Ryan had two large books with him at all times. One was for domestic policy and the other for foreign policy. Romney’s policy staff in Boston was helpful in providing information about Romney’s positions, but Ryan took it upon himself to write much of the analysis and talking points. By late September, Ryan, who often vacations in the Rocky Mountains, asked his staff to book him a few rooms at a mountain resort so he could prepare in relative silence and anonymity. The Romney campaign settled on a place in rural Virginia because Virginia is a swing state and its mountains are fairly accessible.

#page#Romney’s senior advisers have taken a keen interest in Ryan’s prep. Russ Schriefer, a top Romney strategist, has attended many of the sessions, and Peter Flaherty, a senior Romney adviser, has sporadically played the moderator during mock debates. Kerry Healey, Romney’s former lieutenant governor, has also played the moderator, doing her best impression of ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who will referee on Thursday. Ted Olson, a former solicitor general who has known Ryan for years, has played Biden from the start.

Much of the behind-the-scenes work has been intense but casual. Business suits and ties aren’t always a requirement in Ryan World, and the congressman enjoys keeping things loose with advisers who share his Beltway vernacular. In this sense, late-night conversations in hotel rooms and on the plane have been as important as the mock debates. Ryan, who wakes early every morning to exercise, often prefers to hash things out until midnight with his staff, especially if he is away from his wife and his children.

#ad#“I’ve watched [Biden’s] tapes, I’ve watched his speeches, like the one he gave today, and just looked at a lot of their issues, their positions,” Ryan told The Weekly Standard last week. “I expect the vice president to come at me like a cannonball. He’ll be in full attack mode, and I don’t think he’ll let any inconvenient facts get in his way.”

The mock debates — excluding the laid-back sessions in jeans in Ryan’s hometown — have purposefully been more formal. From the first mock debates in a Washington, D.C., hotel to the run-throughs at Wintergreen, Ryan and Olson have been seated at a conference-room table, just as they will be in Danville, Ky., under the bright lights. Ryan’s aides are hushed as Flaherty or Healey open the sessions, and the atmosphere, according to a Romney official, is “charged.” Olson has mastered Biden’s mannerisms, down to his long-windedness and hand gestures. Olson’s tactics echo those of Senator Rob Portman, who played the role of President Obama during Mitt Romney’s debate prep and pestered the former governor about his responses.

Ryan has kept his cool. “He’s been in Congress for a long time, so he knows how to deal with weird people,” says Vin Weber, a Romney adviser. There have been bouts of nervousness about various topics and issues, his confidants say. But those moments, they argue, reflect his commitment to preparation and reveal his tendency toward perfectionism. Ryan doesn’t want simply to push back against Biden; he wants to win the argument. His preferred method of communicating with voters is the town hall, and since he won’t have his PowerPoint slides with him in Kentucky, he plans to tinker slightly with his usual presentation because many voters aren’t familiar with his wonky style.

Working with Speth and former House aides Michael Steel, Joyce Meyer, and Conor Sweeney, Ryan has carefully reviewed his House record, ensuring that he is up to speed on all the details of his budget and the Romney economic plan. But according to many of his advisers, the most important sessions have been those with Senor, a former Bush administration official who is an expert on foreign policy. Ryan has traveled to the Middle East and knows more about foreign policy than he’s given credit for, but he acknowledges that it’s the one area that he needs to sharpen. Biden may be gaffe-prone, but he is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A handful of Ryan allies are worried. They know he is smart and that he is the House’s ideological leader, but they fret that his youth and upbeat voice may be problems. One longtime Ryan friend tells me that Ryan’s biggest challenge will be appearing to “meet the threshold” for executive office. The friend says Ryan may be president one day, but, for now, in his early forties, he has to make sure he doesn’t come across as too numbers-oriented and distant. Two Ryan advisers tell me that Ryan is aware of this, and he has talked about it with his top aides. To combat that impression, Ryan will probably stick to two or three themes on Thursday instead of bombarding Biden with data.

Mitt Romney, for his part, has largely let Ryan prepare on his own, without any interference. His aides are there are to assist Ryan’s busy traveling team, but Romney and Ryan don’t frequently huddle to discuss strategy. They spoke on the night of last week’s presidential debate and compared notes a few days later on the campaign bus before a rally in Virginia. But other than those fleeting exchanges, they’re operating as partners who trust each other. Romney has told his advisers that Ryan’s core strength is that he knows the issues and doesn’t need to have his hand held on policy.

In the final days, Ryan will do some brief mock debates, but he’ll spend much of his time talking through various debate scenarios. Ryan likes to “game out” things, a Republican operative says, and he enjoys discussing how Biden may react in certain situations. His mood about the entire debate has noticeably changed in recent days, an adviser adds, since Romney’s debate. To Ryan, Romney’s assertiveness signals the campaign’s energy, and it will shape his own attitude and style when he faces Biden at Centre College. “He doesn’t want to be the guy talking about CBO baselines, but he wants to fight,” a Ryan adviser says. “He’s learned a lot on the trail about how to better make his case.”

Ryan hasn’t had a serious debate since 1998, when he first ran for Congress. At the time, he was 28 years old. Running against Democrat Lydia Spottswood, he was tagged as impressive, but too young — much as he is now by his critics. In those debates, Ryan took care to avoid sounding too much like a former congressional staffer. “You just can’t come across as an arrogant young know-it-all,” Ryan reflected a few years ago, in an interview with Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

“He was really very serious, almost dour in those debates,” Schneider chuckles, recalling Ryan’s first run. “Given his youth as a vice-presidential candidate, he may take that same tack, and I don’t expect him to try to be too funny. He’ll let Biden do that. But he’s still the same guy he was back then. He loves talking about the budget and spending. So we’ll probably see that side of him in the debate, regardless of what’s happened in the prep.”

As Tobin Ryan, Ryan’s older brother, sees it, his brother has always been ready to wrangle with the best minds and political figures, ever since he sought out Kemp after he graduated from college. He worked hard for Kemp at his think tank and then helped him during the presidential campaign. “It was Paul’s coalescing moment,” Tobin says.

Kemp may have floundered during his veep debate, but Ryan wasn’t deterred by the congressman’s mistakes. He learned from them, studied them, and remembered them as he made his way through Congress. Now, as he campaigns on the national Republican ticket, those memories — both the good and the bad — are foremost in his mind, even if he doesn’t talk about them in public. In his tight circle, the mantra is clear: Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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