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.

Until now.

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.

Ryan has:

* 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.

Until now.

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. jnichols@madison.com

You might also like

(11) comments

Lowden

ROB taking on Ryan:
3/31/2012 : The Romney Ryan "Bromance"
"It’s official- Paul Ryan is in a "bromance" with Mitt Romney. The Democratic National Committee released a video about this relationship yesterday.
Romney-Ryan will be campaigning around the state before the April 3 primary. Ryan is doing this campaigning during his "constituent work week" when he is supposed to be focusing on the needs of the people.
I wonder if they will both put their dogs on the roof of the campaign bus?"

"3-27-12: Rob Zerban, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., along with about a dozen supporters delivered approximately 30,000 online petition signatures to Ryan's Racine office Tuesday. The petition says "I oppose all efforts to end or dismantle Medicare."/Video by Stephanie Jones


2/29/2012: Mitt Romney Works for Paul Ryan!
Grover Norquist, the leading Republican lobbyist said: "We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget.... We just need a president to sign this stuff." Grover said that "Mitt Romney will do as told" because Paul Ryan is the one leading the Republicans.


1-19-12: Rob forces Ryan to take a stand on SOPA ( Stop Online Piracy Act) opposing it unlike most Republicans. "Zerban's campaign took off as he focused on the SOPA fight. "Since I came out against the overreach of SOPA, we have had an incredible outpouring of support across the Internet," he explained in an email to the Betabeat website, which has done a terrific job of covering these issues. "Donations are spiking and people are going to www.robzerban.com in much greater numbers. To me, it reflects the power of the Internet as a tool for democracy and that is what I love so much about it and what to make sure we protect."

Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/opinion/column/john_nichols/john-nichols-how-rob-zerban-forced-paul-ryan-to-defend/article_7dfe4d30-4218-11e1-b6e3-0019bb2963f4.html#ixzz24V95BdNQ

glenrusswood
glenrusswood

richard russell :the only hypocrite nere...besides Nichols

Tpartywarrior
Tpartywarrior

Zerban who? Nobody cares........................

davea

I just can't wait to see the headlines when Ryan looses both!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

krshorewood

Paul Ryan illustrates the danger of having your behind lavishly kissed by the media.

Rob, on the other hand, gets better as a campaigner with each passing week.

The Obama campaign may help Rob win this, though I always thought Rob could pull it off before.

Lynne4300

Nichols is just a Soros puppet. (How is that "reforming media" project going)?

stcroixcarp

Ah-Ha, the ugly soros monster rears its head again. Did you ever notice that the righties have only one boogyman to cart out? George Soros. We Lefties have more...the Koch boys, Bob Perry, the Texas Swiftboater, Adelson of Las Vegas gambling fortune, Sweetie deep pockets Dianne from Janesville who pays no state taxes but gives half a million to Walker, ALEC, etc.

Dode
Dode

And Little Johnny's never actually had to write anything truthful. Did you attack Joe Bidumb when he ran as VP and Senator in 2008? Of course, you didn't. Nice of you to throw Ryan's former competition under the democRAT bus. Paul Ryan has, since being named VP pick, appeared more presidential on the campaign trail than President Zero has. He is wowing crowds across the country. You attacked Ryan for taking Social Security survivor benefits that his father helped paid for, yet say nothing about Zerban taking Pell grants to fund his education. Ryan wants to save Social Security and Medicare, yet you keep playing the Mediscare card. I can't wait for you next pack of lies later this week.

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Ryan opposes Social Security benefits but took them anyway.
Zerban favors Pell Grants in no small part because he benefitted from them.
Which one is consistent? Which the hypocrite?

You made the claim, time for you to back it up. I have never heard that Ryan actually opposes Social Security benefits. Can you please provide me with something where Ryan actually states that he opposes Social Security benefits, I'd really like to hear the context of a statement like that? Don't provide someones interruption of something that Ryan said, I want his actual words.

stcroixcarp

That is because Ryan is a hypocrite for taking social security benefits for himself and then tries to destroy SS for everyone else. Zerban took Pell Grants to help fund his education (so did my kids) but he supports higher education and wants to make sure that the new generations of college students have Pell Grants to help them. I would shame Zerban if he wanted to get rid Pell grants. The difference between Ryan and Zerban is that Ryan uses the system for his own advantage, but wants to dismantle it for all of the rest of us. Zerban wants to preserve the good government programs that are of benefit to all Americans.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Exchange ideas and opinions on posted articles. Don't promote products or services, impersonate other site users, register multiple accounts, threaten or harass others, post vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language. Don't post content that defames or degrades anyone. Don't repost copyrighted material; link to it. In other words, stick to the topic and play nice. Report abuses by clicking the button. Users who break the rules will be banned from commenting. We no longer issue warnings. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.