U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., talks with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, left, after presenting him with a cheesehead hat during Branstad's birthday bash and fundraiser Saturday in Altoona, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

– Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) dipped his toe into the 2016 presidential waters Saturday night with a stinging critique of the Obama administration’s handling of the new health law’s rollout.

The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, after a year of remaining largely behind the scenes in Washington, came to the first-in-the-nation caucus state to depict the troubled launch of the new law as “big government in practice.”

“We are no longer looking at big government in theory anymore,” Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, told an audience of nearly 800 Iowans gathered at an amusement park theater 15 miles outside Des Moines. Ostensibly, the appearance was meant as a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who said he grew close to Ryan when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney selected him as his running mate and he stumped with Ryan in Iowa last year.

The 43-year-old Wisconsin congressmen presented the five-term governor with a Green Bay Packers cheesehead that had the mustachioed image of Branstad emblazoned on it.

Ryan did not mention his own political ambitions – he told the Des Moines Register earlier this week he would decide whether to join the next presidential race after the 2014 elections. This was his first appearance at any of the early 2016 primary and caucus battlegrounds, lagging far behind many of his potential rivals, who have descended on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a steady diet of drop-ins to gatherings large and small.

Despite Ryan’s reluctance to engage in what has been called the “invisible primary,” he flirted with his political future by telling the crowd that he, his wife and three children enjoyed their experience on the campaign trail last year. They particularly enjoyed the trips through Iowa.

“Maybe we should come back and do this more often,” he said.

In an interview afterward, Branstad said that the Republicans should look to a governor as their presidential nominee in 2016 and that Ryan should focus on his leadership role in Congress trying to tame the swelling federal debt.

Ryan’s 18-minute speech was a mix of policy discussion and political autopsy of why his ticket lost in 2012. It appeared to be well received but did not prompt the sort of passionate response that other recent 2016 contenders have gotten recently in Iowa.

The congressman acknowledged that he and Romney were stung by the loss to President Obama, leading to a period of deep reflection for both men. “We were in a funk for a good six months,” he said.

His review of the 2012 defeat revealed a key political problem for the GOP ticket. Some major parts of the Obama agenda, including the mandate that individuals purchase a health plan, had not taken affect at election time last year. That left Romney and Ryan arguing against policies that had not yet taken shape, “big government in theory,” Ryan said.

Now the administration is facing intense political heat for the health law’s muddled rollout, and Obama has apologized for his previous claims that anyone who liked his or her health-care plan could keep that health-care plan.

“Either they were being dishonest, or they were incompetent. Frankly, I don’t know which one is worse,” Ryan told the crowd to cheers.

Hinting at his own future plans, Ryan devoted the final message of his speech to expanding the GOP agenda beyond the fixation on budget deficits. He said he wants to mount “a real war on poverty,” calling on Republicans to no longer be just the “opposition party” but to also become the “proposition party.”

Ryan offered no new policy proposals, but he suggested some were in the development stage.

“We also have to show who we are and what we believe in,” Ryan said.