Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has largely overshadowed the presidential contenders (the announced ones, that is). He is in a running debate with the president, not they. He is the one who’s put forth a detailed budget, not they. In a must-read piece by John McCormack of the Weekly Standard, Ryan, we learn, is also garnering more attention and bigger crowds than the presidential hopefuls as he takes his plan and his PowerPoint out to town hall meetings.

It is noteworthy that Ryan avoids a Sherman-esque refusal to run for president, merely saying “I’m not even going there with my mind or my discussions.” Understandably, he wants to keep his focus on his current job; and his status as a non-candidate, for now, is helpful. But this incident is certainly intriguing:

Ryan was dismissive, however, of likely presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s idea to reform Medicare through “payment reforms” that would incentivize health care providers to produce better health care outcomes.

“Medicare has yet to do this successfully,” Ryan [said]. “The president wants his [Independent Payment Advisory Board] to do essentially the same thing. It’s very difficult for a centralized bureaucracy to do that. . . . When they get these targets, like the president is giving them, you know a half a trillion dollars, they just sort of do indiscriminate cutting across the board, lowering reimbursement to providers, causing providers to drop out of the program altogether.”

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels seems to be the potential GOP presidential candidate most supportive of Ryan’s plan. “I think that’s accurate,” Ryan says. He’s talked to Daniels recently about the budget in general but says “your guess is as good as mine” when asked for the odds that Daniels actually runs.

Ryan continues to have high praise for Daniels. “He understands the issues and the system pretty well,” Ryan says. “He understands if we don’t fix this now, people are going to get hurt.”

In other words, Ryan, who’s deservedly gained a reputation for being sincere and nice, can throw an elbow or two. Pawlenty has generically applauded Ryan’s plan but kept his distance, avoiding an embrace of any specific proposal that could prove nettlesome in an election. The lesson (i.e. it doesn’t really pay to mess with Ryan) seems not to be lost on Mitt Romney, who’s had very nice things to say about Ryan of late. He spoke to TPM:

“He is setting the right tone for finally getting spending and entitlements under control,” Romney told TPM in a statement. “Anyone who has read my book knows that we are on the same page.”

Well, I did read the book and there’s a lot in there about the individual mandate. Be that as it may, I suspect you won’t find Ryan jabbing at Romneyare anytime soon. Ryan has figured out how to praise his allies and make critics squirm just a tad.

Indeed, in his budget rollout, Ryan’s shown some finesse and toughness, punching back against the president and defending his plan in interview after interview. This suggests that he’s not simply a wonk; he’s also a good politician with steel in his spine.