OWENSVILLE, Ohio — Paul D. Ryan was plucked from Congress to be Mitt Romney's running mate largely on his reputation as the wonkish and charismatic House Budget Committee chairman, but under the evening sun at the county fairgrounds he was debating beer.
And ribs. And a regional favorite called Five Way, which is chili over spaghetti noodles topped with cheese, onions and beans.
The architect of the Republican Party's tough-love economic platform has proved particularly adept on the campaign trail with another aspect of political life: courting voters with an appealing enthusiasm, while sometimes skimming past thorny budget details.
Ryan deflected a pointed question during a recent "Fox News Sunday" interview about the potential cost of the Romney-Ryan tax plan, saying it "would take me too long."
Days later at a town hall meeting in Iowa, a woman wearing a jacket from his beloved Green Bay Packers sought more clarity after his five-slide PowerPoint presentation on federal spending and the debt. "Where are the answers? I mean, why aren't you more specific?" she asked.
As Ryan heads into Thursday's debate with Vice President Joe Biden, this ideological heir to a generation of conservative leaders will have an opportunity to counter an impression that he has evaded tough questions, and show off the knowledge and skills that excited his party as adding gravitas to their presidential ticket.
"It's hard to maintain one's dignity as an intellectual heavyweight while campaigning," said Robert L. Bixby, a veteran budget hawk who is executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog.
Ryan, who first worked in Congress as a college intern, has been cultivated over his 20-year career in Washington by some of the city's most influential GOP figures. His approach to economics embodies a political genealogy that stretches from Ronald Reagan to the tea party.
Among his most lasting influences was the supply-side economics guru Jack Kemp, who helped orchestrate Reagan's first tax cuts — which prompted an enduring debate over whether it was lower taxes or increased military spending that boosted the economy in those years.
Ryan became a speechwriter for Kemp shortly after interning on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, and those who knew Kemp see his easy optimism and tax policy prescriptions reflected in the 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin.
"The power of the personal, that's something that Paul learned from Dad," said Jimmy Kemp, a director at the Patton Boggs law firm, who recalled that his father kept in touch with Ryan until he died of cancer in 2009. "People don't care what you know until they know you care."
The Romney-Ryan plan would cut tax rates, bolster defense and reduce the federal government's role in Medicare and Medicaid. But protecting defense spending would require deep cuts in school lunches and other domestic mainstays. And some analyses have suggested that to reduce the deficit, Romney and Ryan would have to eliminate tax breaks that help the middle class, such as the home mortgage deduction.
But Ryan shares Kemp's unwavering belief that lower taxes would spur the economy, and the Packers fan who questioned Ryan said later that she was satisfied with his lengthy response.
"Every time we've done this, we have created economic growth," Ryan said.
The candidate's team disputes the notion that the Ryan on the stump is a watered-down version of the congressional Ryan. They point to many recent speeches — at one robust question-and-answer forum in Orlando, Fla., he broke out the PowerPoint slides that are now a staple at such events — as evidence that he provides more detail than either President Obama or Biden.
Obama characterized the Romney-Ryan approach as "trickle-down fairy dust" that was tried a generation ago and doesn't work. During the supply-side heyday of the Reagan years, the top marginal tax rate was slashed to 28% from 70%, but the nation's debt, which had been decreasing, spiked.
At the fairgrounds, Ryan dismissed Obama as someone who "can give lots of great speeches."
Critics have slighted Ryan for some convenient omissions on the campaign trail, such as when he blamed Obama for the nation's credit downgrade and the failure to adopt a bipartisan commission's plan to reduce the deficit. Ryan too had played a significant role in both events.
Others, though, see a talented politician able to silence his inner policy geek in favor of the savvy campaigner. A squeaky-voiced Ross Perot with confounding charts he is not. Hard-rock anthems punctuate his campaign stops. Amid easy banter about beer and chili, Ryan eagerly weaves in the economic theories he has pursued most of his adult life.
Since he was a 21-year-old intern in Washington, Ryan has refined his economics education. Dropping off the mail, he would chat with a top Republican aide, Cesar Conda, who lent Ryan books, which the young man marked up in the margins.
"Paul at his core is a quintessential staffer," said Conda, now chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite. "Even though he's become a very good politician."
Ambitious young interns arrive each year in Washington with the intellectual curiosity and work ethic that Ryan brought from Janesville, Wis. What set Ryan apart was his early tutelage by some of the party's intellectual luminaries.
He worked with Kemp at Empower America, the think tank cofounded by fellow George H.W. Bush administration alum William Bennett, who also became a mentor. And as a Capitol Hill staffer after Republicans took over Congress in 1995, he was assigned to the House Budget Committee, run by Rep. John Kasich, now Ohio's governor. Kasich introduced Ryan in Owensville.
These political veterans imparted skills and bestowed clout in a way that resembles an Old Testament tale of families begetting families.
When Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998, the House majority leader was Dick Armey, who would later become the chairman of the tea party powerhouse FreedomWorks, which evolved out of Kemp's Empower America.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, worked alongside Ryan when both were Capitol Hill staffers in the "bunker" of Kasich's budget panel. "I view him as the bridge between the old Reagan-Kemp supply-siders and the libertarian young guns that came in with the tea party class in 2010," Kibbe said.
By the time Ryan leapfrogged more senior lawmakers to become the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, his early drafts of what would become the "Path to Prosperity," the party's budget blueprint, articulated the ideology of the modern conservative movement.
"Since the day that Paul was elected to Congress, we worked with him on a number of issues, a lot of what would become the Path to Prosperity," Kibbe said. "He's what Dick Armey would call a legislative entrepreneur — he actually turned ideas into legislation. That's what attracted us from Day 1."
Ryan's economic approach picks up where his predecessors left off, going beyond Kemp's supply-side tax cuts to a deficit-slashing reduction in the scope of the federal government that the earlier generation may not have dared.
In Congress, Ryan has veered at times from this outlook, especially as he agreed to big-ticket budget items — the bank bailout and new Medicare prescription drug benefit. But those deviations from tea party orthodoxy did little to disrupt his rise to become the Republican Party's leading voice on fiscal issues.
"Kemp was always focused on marginal tax rates — he was like a one-hit wonder — he had one great song, but you were always waiting for the album," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which organizes the no-new-taxes pledge that almost all GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed. "Ryan's the second act."