OPINION: Paul Ryan, in debate, secured his future

Paul Ryan is running for more than just vice president.

He is running for the presidency four or eight years from now. So in that regard, the stakes for him are not nearly as high as the other candidates on the two national tickets, all three of whom are gambling on this one last chance.

Oh, it's possible that Joe Biden might be a contestant in the 2016 White House sweepstakes, but he will be 70 in November and facing an uphill fight to convince voters that his age wasn't a debilitating factor in a job that requires more energy than that of most people 10 years younger. Although "Smiling Joe," as he can now be called following his grinning performance in last week's debate with Ryan, might fool us, the odds are long against it.

There is little doubt where Ryan, now only 42, will stand with his party's powerful conservative wing at the end of Election Day win or lose: right at the very top. That's the reason a host of GOP wannabes with eyes on the path to the presidential mansion would have accepted the job, even if they felt at the time that Romney had little or no chance of unseating President Barack Obama. That includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

But Ryan won that lottery and, with it, the rare chance for a future in presidential politics. Of course, anything can happen overnight to sidetrack this opportunity, especially in politics. Given the resilience he has shown in the roughest territory in Congress, the budget debate, the odds would have to be on his survival. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, his unwillingness to give in on his position that national security depends on the ability to deal with horrendous fiscal problems had to be admired. The way he would go about cutting spending and reforming entitlement programs has made him a darling in some circles and despised in others.

There seems little question that Ryan was able to dispel the totally negative image with a solid performance in the debate with Biden. While the vice president also made up some of the ground Obama lost in his first confrontation with Mitt Romney, Biden's facial manipulation and constant interruption of his opponent (excuse me, his "friend") clearly detracted from the generally positive impact. Ryan's rapid-fire, serious responses drew dramatic contrast -- the kid taking on the old-time politician. It almost seemed at times that Biden was prepared to pat Ryan on the head while soothingly saying, "Now, now, Junior."

As Ryan moves to solidify his image as the fresh face of the GOP, his success in politics will depend on a lot of good fortune (as it always does) and his ability to be less rigid. If Romney should win, it is likely that Ryan will be given the opportunity to shape the president's positions on preventing fiscal disaster. As vice president, he'd need to soften some of the stances he has developed over 14 years in the House of Representatives while at the same time maintaining his popularity with conservatives. If politics is the art of compromise, Ryan will face moderating uncompromising judgments developed by strict religious and social values. All successful officeholders at that level quickly become aware that the middle of the road is where Americans actually reside.

Should Romney lose, his task may be different, but only slightly. He will have the opportunity to solidify his position with the GOP base and prove to major voting blocs -- such as women and old folks -- that he is not intemperate when it comes to their needs. He has about two years to accomplish that before the 2016 political free-for-all begins once more.

Ryan's one chance before a national audience in this protracted presidential race went well enough. He performed more than credibly against a veteran politician. The debate was generally considered a draw, with each side profiting. The one result that seems irrefutable is that Ryan is in the game for a long time.

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