JANESVILLE, Wis. — Rep. Paul Ryan’s friends and supporters left for the rally five hours early, forming a caravan through the deserted streets of downtown. Some brought cameras and audio recorders to document the trip. “A Landmark Day in Our History,” read one handmade sign, because Ryan had never given a speech quite like this.
They planned to drive 90 minutes to Waukesha, where they would wait in line for an hour and stand outside for two more, fighting for position in a crowd of 13,000. This would be a different Ryan from the one they had seen in the past few months — at the 4-H fair, the county picnic, the state assembly luncheon.
“I think we are mostly just curious,” said Jason Mielke, who helped arrange the trip.
How much would Ryan transform the presidential campaign?
How much would the campaign transform him?
Most people who joined the caravan to Waukesha on Sunday were core members of the Republican Party in Janesville, but they also knew Ryan outside of politics. There was Mielke, a photographer who had taken Ryan’s family portraits a few days earlier; and Rebecca Ayers, whose family had helped look after Ryan’s grandmother when she was sick; and nearly a dozen others from this town of 60,000 in southern Wisconsin, most of whom had stories about Ryan dating back to a lunch, a run-in at the gym or a high school class.
“Everybody here feels like they know him,” Mielke said, “and that’s true whether you love him or you hate him.”
They considered Ryan a politician built in the mold of Rock County: solid, steadfast, respectful, a mystery to no one. He spoke his mind, and his mind rarely changed. His family had owned a construction business in town since 1884, and most of Ryan’s relatives still lived on the block where they grew up. Ryan’s own house on Courthouse Hill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He liked to bow hunt for deer in the fall and ice fish in the winter. He was a budget hawk married to a tax lawyer, a man of fastidious routines who monitored his heart rate during workouts, attended Catholic Mass and rooted for the Packers. He was Paul.
Life in Janesville had prepared him for the divisiveness of a national campaign. His home town was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and he heard complaints from both. Retired conservatives who lived in the historic neighborhood above the river worried about taxes and Medicare; union workers on the opposite bank had lost manufacturing jobs to Mexico and homes to foreclosure. They knocked on Ryan’s door and stopped him at the grocery store. They knew where to find him and what to expect.
But now even those who had known Ryan longest wondered if some kind of transformation was at hand. Could a politician famous for his exhaustive PowerPoint presentations speak in inspirational sound bites? Could the man who had polarized Janesville become a unifier of the Republican Party?
“These next few months will have an impact on him, on the city, on the whole country,” Mielke said. “We’re just waiting to see how and what.”
He hoped to find some preliminary answers at the rally in Waukesha.
The caravan wound out of Janesville, passing the places that had helped shape Ryan and the places that he had helped shape.
They drove past yard signs for Paul’s congressional campaign, some modified with black ink: “Our Paul, Your VP.” They drove past Ryan’s six-bedroom home, where three men in suits now stood guard on the front steps. They drove beyond signs for a real estate auction, where new houses were offered for $40,000; beyond the old General Motors plant, abandoned in 2008, with weeds sprouting up in the parking lot; beyond the United Way building on the riverfront, where dozens of laid-off employees from GM still lined up each morning hoping for help.
The past several years had been rough on Janesville. They had been rough on many members of the caravan, too. Mielke, a photographer and a broadcast engineer, had just taken a 5 percent pay cut and a two-week furlough. “It’s grim and not getting better,” he said. Ayers, a single mother of two young sons, had lost her job at a hospital and then found another — finally — at a food company warehouse. “The pay is low and it sure won’t work forever,” she said. “But it’s a job, and right now everybody is just looking for something to hold us over.”
Some in Janesville believed that Ryan was part of the problem. His opposition to government spending led him in 2008 to stop taking earmarks for local projects, which stalled some development downtown. His budgetary vision also threatened to curtail food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance programs on which more than a quarter of the people in his home town had come to rely. Janesville had one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Polls showed that nearly half of Wisconsin residents had an unfavorable impression of Ryan.
But he had been easily reelected six times because many others identified him as part of the solution. Curtail the debt. Cut taxes. Create more jobs. Ryan had helped put economics at the core of the Republican Party, using a series of charts and PowerPoint slides as his manifesto.
“We have a choice of two futures,” he liked to say.
“The time to make a change is right now,” he often repeated.
He had given the same presentation about his Path to Prosperity budget blueprint dozens of times in libraries and community rooms across Rock County, holding a water bottle in one hand and a laser pointer in the other. He had won over the local Republican base one voter at a time, sometimes staying for two hours to answer their questions, until his following swelled and the crowds grew too big for the venues.
Now, he had two months to win over millions more.
The supporters from Janesville arrived at the expo center in Waukesha and found a full-scale circus, built overnight. The sign on the marquee still advertised the day’s previously scheduled event: “Welcome Dirty Girl Mud Run!” it read. But now the Secret Service had set up 15 metal detectors at the entrance, and Mitt Romney’s advance team had hauled in four gigantic American flags and six truckloads of hay to frame the stage.
“Think he’ll still thank everybody by name?” Mielke joked.
A few people from Janesville pushed through the crowd toward the center of the spectacle. There, to the left of the stage, was former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, smiling and shouting about his “9-9-9” plan; there, high above them, were camera cranes ready to film a campaign commercial; there, arriving now in a red-white-and-blue bus, were Ryan and Romney, walking stride for stride, pumping their fists to the beat of the soundtrack from the movie “Air Force One.”
“If they wanted energy, I guess this is it,” said Angie Sturdivant, who had also made the trip from Janesville.
Ryan stepped on stage, looked over the crowd and wiped his eyes. “My veins run with cheese, bratwurst and a little Spotted Cow, Leinie’s and some Miller” beer, he said. He blew kisses to the crowd. He joked that half of them were his relatives. “Hi, Mom,” he said, waving into a camera.
“He’s usually not so emotional,” Ayers said.
Ryan spoke for about 15 minutes, using mostly campaign platitudes and generalizations. He never mentioned the federal budget or his beloved Path to Prosperity. He warmed up the crowd and then, when Romney stepped on stage, happily deferred.
The event ended with a standing ovation, and Ryan and Romney walked out together. Ryan went back to the bus and back to the campaign trail, ready to take the lessons and experiences of Janesville with him across the country.
The caravan, meanwhile, headed back to his home town, where those who knew him best were eager to see what he could do and who he would become.