Fourteen years ago, Paul Ryan embarked on his first race for Congress as a political unknown from Janesville whose youth and inexperience inspired even some Republicans to question his future.
"He doesn't have a chance," said Republican primary challenger George Petak, a former state senator, at the time. "He's just a kid."
Ryan's turn as a vice presidential candidate — the first by a Wisconsinite on a major party ticket — ended in a loss Tuesday, but observers say the Janesville Republican established himself as a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
"Being a vice presidential candidate, even on a losing ticket, tends to elevate people into the ranks of presidential contenders," said Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor and expert on the vice presidency.
Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday that despite the results "Paul Ryan's credibility is as strong, if not stronger, than it was when he joined the race."
Ryan easily won re-election to an eighth term in Congress, and with Republicans maintaining control of the House he is expected to continue his influential role as budget committee chairman.
"His influence has grown over the past four months," said Bob Kasten, Wisconsin's former U.S. senator who hired Ryan as an aide out of college. "He now is the most important legislator. More important than any legislator or senator with regard to impact on budget and fiscal decisions."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's selection of Ryan — a young, photogenic fiscal expert from a key swing state — as his running mate in August excited party conservatives who considered Romney too moderate.
But Ryan had his stumbles, Goldstein said. In his GOP convention speech Ryan linked President Barack Obama to the closing of the Janesville General Motors plant, which happened before Obama took office. In an interview he exaggerated a marathon time by more than an hour. And he was linked through past legislation he sponsored to a controversial statement by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin about "forcible rape."
Ryan's budget proposals for retooling Medicare may have dampened Romney's support, but not as much as some had predicted, Goldstein said.
"I don't think they're going to say Ryan hurt (Romney)," he said. "In some ways Romney has been more successful than people thought he would be" given controversy over Ryan's budget plans.
Few representatives gain the national stature Ryan did during the campaign and none have been elected president since James Garfield in 1880.
Should he decide to seek the presidency in 2016, Ryan would fare well in a primary because of his conservative bona fides, said Laurel Harbridge, an assistant political science professor at Northwestern University and expert on Congress.
"Ryan has to do less to make that case than (2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John) McCain or Romney did," Harbridge said.
And he would enter the 2016 election cycle better known by voters than other GOP hopefuls, said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor.
In Janesville over the last few months, Ryan cast a proud glow over his struggling hometown, where most people know him simply as "Paul."
On Tuesday morning, Ryan voted with his family at the public library on Main Street, trailed by a phalanx of television cameras and reporters and eventually returning to his nearby house in a black sport-utility vehicle. The national attention seemed surreal to many voters.
"I never really thought it would be a hometown person," said Kathy Kurtz as she walked from the library under an umbrella. Her son-in-law, Tony Huml, went to grade school and high school with Ryan and introduced her to the congressman at St. Mary's Catholic Church shortly after his first election, which happened in 1998 when he was just 28 years old.
State Journal reporters Dan Simmons and Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.