Paul Ryan workout photos: Do they send the right message?

A new Time Magazine photo shoot shows a ripped Rep. Paul Ryan pumping iron. But has the congressman been emphasizing his fitness too much?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this June 1 file photo, Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Politics is frequently compared to a sport, if not a bloodsport. So it makes sense that candidates would think it advantageous to portray themselves as being in “fighting shape.”

But in vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s case, that image is now teetering on the edge of caricature.

We suppose some supporters may find the new Time Magazine photos of Congressman Ryan in full “P90X” workout mode flattering. After all, there’s no disputing the fact that the congressman is pretty ripped. Drudge – an outlet that’s clearly sympathetic to the Romney-Ryan ticket – even chose to prominently display one of the shots of Ryan pumping iron Thursday morning.

But we suspect that many others will find the Ryan photo shoot – hmmm, how shall we put this – bordering on hilarious. There’s the backwards baseball cap. The way Ryan locks eyes with the camera as he’s doing his bicep curls. Our personal favorite is the one where he’s reaching an arm out and pouting in a pseudo-homeboyish pose.

Maybe he meant it ironically?

It’s reminiscent, on some level, of the famous photo of Michael Dukakis in the tank. Or those John Kerry windsurfing shots. Those, too, were pictures intended to show off the candidate’s tough, manly side, but they ended up unintentionally reinforcing a very different message.

The photos are especially jarring, in a way, because Ryan is generally regarded, even by many of his opponents, as a serious guy. We wonder: Did he not have any handlers around telling him that this photo shoot might not be such a good idea? Or is the congressman just so enamored with his own physical prowess that he won’t listen to naysayers?

Already, the fitness thing has gotten him into more trouble than almost any other topic. He’s had to correct his own public misstatement about his marathon time (he claimed to have run one in under 3 hours, but later admitted it was more like 4). And questions have been raised about statements he’s made about his body fat percentage (he told Politico he kept it “between 6 and 8 percent,” which, reporters have pointed out, would make him fitter than most Tour de France cyclists), and his mountain-climbing prowess.

Of course, to some extent, exercise and sports shots are a staple of campaign imagery. It’s a way of sending two messages at once: The candidate is strong and healthy, and is a “regular guy.” But sometimes, those pictures can backfire. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was happy to show him playing basketball – but probably wished they hadn’t let the press see him bowl.

Back in 2007, when he was running against the older John McCain, Mitt Romney devoted an entire ad to footage of himself jogging. This time around, however, he hasn’t really emphasized his sporting side as much (other than those also-questionable shots of him riding on the back of Ann Romney’s jet ski).

So Ryan has had the exercise-guru mantle to himself.

Frankly – even putting aside the questions about Ryan’s odd exaggerations – we’re not sure voters really want a candidate who seems too into his own fitness. Most Americans fall more on the sedentary side of the ledger, and while they may not want a couch-potato candidate, they also don’t want to feel bad about themselves by comparison. And they tend not to warm to people who repeatedly boast about how in-shape they are.

But, clearly, Ryan believes his fitness gives him an edge. Who knows, maybe at the debate tonight he'll challenge Vice President Joe Biden to an arm-wrestling contest? Or maybe he’ll drop down and do some one-armed pushups, like Jack Palance at the Oscars?

We'll say this: It would make it a lot more fun than the last one.

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