Is Paul Ryan losing the GOP's 'invisible primary' to Marco Rubio?

While Sen. Marco Rubio leads immigration reform efforts, Rep. Paul Ryan has been the face of the GOP's less-popular fiscal battles. Lately, associates have hinted he may run for president after all.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin arrives at the ceremonial swearing-in for President Obama at the US Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, in January.

Is Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan losing the GOP's pre-presidential-primary battle – otherwise known as the "invisible primary" – to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio?

Sure, 2016 is years away, and it seems awfully early to be speculating about who's likely to run, let alone who's likely to win. But it's also true that this is a crucial time for those considering bids to try to build buzz, woo potential supporters and staffers, and – maybe most important – set themselves apart from the field.

So far, this pre-primary stage has clearly been good for Senator Rubio. He's currently the face of the bipartisan immigration reform effort moving through Congress, which appears to have a good chance of passing. And as a young Hispanic in a party that is now openly discussing its need to improve its standing among Latino voters, he has a strong claim to be the kind of leader the party needs going forward. He's been winning glowing praise from conservative opinion-shapers such as talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin – and that's despite the fact that many of them don't particularly like his immigration plan. 

By contrast, Representative Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has lately been most closely associated with 1) the losing presidential ticket last November and 2) the ongoing fiscal battles on the Hill – which have not exactly done wonders for the GOP's public image. True, Ryan was credited with negotiating the short-term debt-ceiling extension and with talking fellow House Republicans off the "fiscal cliff." But by voting for that deal (which, tellingly, Rubio voted against), he probably didn't win a lot of new fans among the party's conservative base.

Then there's the – for lack of a better term – coolness gap. This week, Rubio was the guest at a forum sponsored by BuzzFeed at a D.C. bar. He discussed, among other things, the relative merits of ’90s rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (or The Notorious B.I.G.), noting at one point that there was a Tupac song that mentioned Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. (Actual quote: "I think Tupac's lyrics are probably more insightful, in my opinion – with all apologies to Biggie fans.") He also casually threw in Pitbull's real name ("Armando").

Compare that with Ryan's appearance at a recent round-table discussion sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, which Politico called "a wonky affair," with Ryan spending "90 minutes in the budget weeds." Asked about how he dealt with last November's loss, Ryan said: "Clearly I thought about the woulda-coulda-shouldas, but I already processed that thinking after the election and during the holidays." It's one thing to say he didn't want to dwell on the disappointment – but it's hard to imagine too many presidential contenders passing up the opportunity to show some emotion by saying they'd already "processed" their thinking on that matter.

To make matters worse, on Tuesday, Politico posted a long piece speculating that the former vice-presidential nominee may opt not to run for president in 2016 after all, instead focusing on "amassing more power within Congress." The piece quoted a "conservative who recently spent time with Ryan" as saying that the congressman "has no interest in the sheer grind of campaigning.” The source concluded bluntly: “It’s hard to see him having ‘what it takes.’ ”

That's a dramatic turnaround for a politician who not long ago was hailed as the future of the Republican Party and, even before November's loss, was seen by many as a 2016 front-runner. (As recently as last October, he was the subject of a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile auspiciously titled "Paul Ryan Can't Lose.")

But in some ways, the prediction that Ryan may take a pass on a White House bid makes sense. For one thing, the House is not a typical springboard to the presidency (the last candidate to do it successfully was James Garfield, in 1880). And the idea that Ryan may not enjoy the campaign trail fits with the "wonkish" personality often portrayed in the media – of a guy who's obsessed with policy and less comfortable with the glad-handing and often-superficial demands of presidential politics. 

On the other hand, it's also possible that Ryan's interest in a 2016 run hasn't really dimmed much at all. He still has an active network of support – including many former Romney backers who have expressed willingness to get behind a Ryan campaign. Also, few politicians can stay in the glare of the spotlight for long without taking some hits and showing some blemishes.

More to the point, in presidential politics – as in life – sometimes playing hard to get can be a very good way of making yourself more desirable. By letting Rubio assume the front-runner's mantle, and the scrutiny that goes with it, Ryan may then be able to gin up interest by professing disinterest – all the while still keeping his options open.

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