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Rising GOP 'Young Gun' peddling sour fiscal medicine - will Americans swallow it?

Paul Ryan has the unhip looks Republicans tend to prefer. His hair recalls the Brylcreemed discipline of a Ronald Reagan. He resembles a character out of My Three Sons more than a post-babyboomer politician.

It is too soon to tell whether Americans will consider his ideas equally dated. But by forcing Barack Obama to the table to talk deficit reduction, Mr. Ryan has at least compelled the country to face up to modern reality.

The politics of Mr. Ryan's plan to put America on a viable fiscal track, most notably by turning Medicare into a voucher program for seniors, may not favour Republicans in 2012. And he could go from hero to zero.

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Much will depend on whether Mr. Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives reach a compromise before next year that reins in the projected growth of the country's debt over the next decade and beyond.

If they do - and it is a colossal if - both could get the credit. If they cannot, the April 5 release of Mr. Ryan's Path to Prosperity will have marked the moment the GOP blew it. He has thrust his party out on a political limb by calling for a massive overhaul of Medicare, at a time when at least three-quarters of Americans say they want it left alone.

If that sounds like a lot of pressure, the 41-year-old Wisconsin congressman appears to be relishing the sudden attention he's gotten for his bold plan to slash federal spending by $5.8-trillion (U.S.) by 2022. Many Republicans now call him the "intellectual leader" of their party.

Some would like him to be even more than that. Facing an uninspiring roster of potential GOP presidential nominees, many Republicans appear to be hoping that a new face emerges to take on Barack Obama in 2012.

Could Mr. Ryan be it? Though he has been a member of Congress since 1998, he could be mistaken for a college freshman. Uncommonly lean for Capitol Hill - he is a devoted practitioner of P90X, an extreme exercise program - his suits always appear a couple of sizes too big.

Funny, not long ago, the same was also said of Mr. Obama.

Mr. Ryan has insisted he will neither run for the presidency next year, nor seek to replace Wisconsin's Democratic senator. His position as House budget committee chairman, he has said, is too good to give up.

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"If the 2012 Republican field remains terribly lacklustre, I might speculate that he would change his mind," offered John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "He has already done a dandy job of putting himself out front as a policy entrepreneur."

Even Mr. Obama acknowledges that. Since last week, when he gave a speech to counter Mr. Ryan's "Path," the President has mentioned the so-called Republican "Young Gun" at nearly every turn.

"I do think Mr. Ryan is sincere," Mr. Obama said on Wednesday during a forum at the Facebook headquarters in California. "But what he and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way."

The ideological contrast between Mr. Obama and Mr. Ryan will frame the budget debate, and possibly the 2012 campaign. The President's approach aims to invest more in research, education and infrastructure. He vows to reform Medicare by making it more efficient, rather than "privatizing" it. He calls for raising taxes on the rich.

Mr. Ryan's plan would radically shrink the size of the federal government. Beginning in 2022, seniors would be given a set amount of money from Washington to purchase private health insurance. A host of social programs would be slashed or eliminated. Tax rates would be cut.

Does that make Mr. Ryan heartless? His professed admiration for Ayn Rand, an icon of libertarians, has made him dangerous in the eyes of liberals. But his own politics have not been as doctrinaire as his choice of idols would suggest.

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The rust-belt district Mr. Ryan represents in Congress was won by Mr. Obama in 2008. Mr. Ryan voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2008 "bank bailout" bill whose funds were also used to rescue General Motors and Chrysler. At the time, Mr. Ryan was trying to save the GM plant in his hometown of Janesville. He also defended earmarks in the past.

Even so, Mr. Ryan seems more comfortable giving PowerPoint presentations on his budget plan than justifying corporate welfare in his district. He has hit his stride with his Path.

The question is: Will Americans like his pace?

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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