The reason why Congressman Paul Ryan has had such a hard time making the leap from campaigning in Wisconsin's 1st District and campaigning for the vice presidency is simple enough: He's never actually faced a tough race.
Elected in 1998, with a big boost from D.C. conservatives who cleared the Republican primary field for him and then steered money into his campaign coffers, Ryan has never faced a difficult re-election campaign.
* Never faced the personal demands -- or the media scrutiny -- of a real re-election race.
* Never been targeted for a serious challenge by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
* Never had to contend with a well-funded re-election foe -- in 2010, Ryan raised $3.9 million to $12,000 for the Democrat who was taking him on.
In other words, Ryan's had it easy.
That's why he bumbled his appearance at the Iowa State Fair, refusing to answer questions from reporters who asked about farm policy and the drought that has so harmed rural America with a cavalier declaration: "Right now I just want to enjoy the fair."
That's why he thought he could get away with suggesting that President Obama's energy policies caused the shuttering of Janesville's General Motors plant, even though the shutdown was announced during George Bush's presidency.
Ryan's experiencing a rough political transition -- not just nationally but at home.
The congressman has yet to bring his vice presidential campaign home to his district. Instead, he did his "homecoming" turn before a friendly audience in Waukesha.
And he has yet to signal whether he will debate his 2012 challenger, Kenosha businessman and local official Rob Zerban.
Ironically, as Ryan has struggled to adjust to the limelight, Zerban has seized the opening.
Zerban has over the past year been the eternal optimist of Wisconsin politics, insisting always that his uphill run against Ryan is "winnable."
Now, even if the race remains an uphill one, Zerban's getting noticed. Even though he may never rival Ryan's campaign bankroll, Zerban is raising enough money to be heard -- well over $1 million so far, with the total rising rapidly. He's attracting volunteers. And the media are paying attention.
Zerban's appearance Sunday on Mike Gousha's statewide politics program, "UpFront," was polished and effective. And that wasn't the end of it; Zerban's maintaining a busy schedule of in-state and national media appearances.
Ryan's hometown paper is even picking up on the challenger's call for Ryan to pay at least a little bit of attention to the 1st District. A headline Monday asked: "Will Zerban, Ryan debate take place?"
And Zerban is landing rhetorical blows to an incumbent who's never really had to fight before.
“Now that Paul Ryan’s personal ambition has clearly trumped his interest in the 1st District, I have no doubt he’ll find himself out of a job come November," says the Democrat. "Once Wisconsinites and voters across our country learn the truth about Ryan’s radical plot to end Medicare as we know it, defund women’s health care, and preserve tax breaks for millionaires, they'll vote against him not just once, but twice.”
That's a tall order. Ryan will have the money advantage and the publicity advantage -- as well as the prospect of a hometown and home-state "pride" vote. But Zerban is determined to make a race of it. And there is some evidence that he's succeeding.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com