ALTOONA, Iowa — Despite being on the losing 2012 presidential ticket, Rep. Paul Ryan's White House prospects have not dimmed in Iowa, where Republican insiders say he will get a strong look in the 2016 caucuses if he takes a crack at the nation's top elected office.
At the same time, some think Mr. Ryan, who has maintained a low profile since the presidential election, is next in line to become speaker of the U.S. House.
He will have to sort that out in the run-up to the Republican nomination race, which will kick off in a little more than two years.
That served as the backdrop to Mr. Ryan's keynote address Saturday at Gov. Terry E. Branstad's traditional birthday bash at the Palace Theater in the Adventureland Amusement Park, the Wisconsin Republican's first visit to the Hawkeye State since Mitt Romney loss to President Obama in 2012.
Mr. Ryan opened his remarks by thanking the crowd for their support in the election and teased the audience about his political future when he said the return trip gave him and his wife, Janna, a chance to see some old friends.
"Maybe we should could back and do this more often," Mr. Ryan said, sparking applause from the audience.
Before the party, Mr. Branstad told The Washington Times that Mr. Ryan will get a fair shake in Iowa if he seeks the party's nod, saying there is a reservoir of affection for the 43-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee. He said voters appreciate the way Mr. Ryan has led the charge on Capitol Hill to get the nation's financial house in order and tackle the more than $17 trillion national debt.
"He is one of the very few people in Washington who is really trying to do something significant to get the country back on track financially," Mr. Branstad said. "You cannot spend a trillion dollars more than you are taking in year after year without destroying this country, and Washington, D.C., just tends to play politics and kick the can down the road. He at least has put together a thoughtful plan to do something about it. I respect that."
Mr. Ryan returned Mr. Branstad's compliment Saturday by telling the nearly 800 people who turned out for Mr. Branstad's 67th birthday party that the Republican governor did not need to run for office again in 2010 but has since pursued policies that have strengthened the state's economy and pushed its unemployment rate well below the national average
He also applauded Mr. Branstad for building up the state's surplus and steering the single biggest tax cut in state history through the Legislature this year.
"That is an example that is wonderful, that the people in Washington can learn from," Mr. Ryan said. "Thank you, Terry Branstad. Thank you for putting the uniform back on again and getting back into the game and scoring some touchdowns."
Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, has refused to say whether he plans to seek the presidential nomination in 2016.
He told the Des Moines Register this week that he will finish out his legislative term and then take "a hard look at it."
That made it hard for him to pass up a chance to appear in Iowa, where a year ago he injected energy into Mr. Romney's presidential bid and helped ease concerns about the former Massachusetts governor's conservative credentials.
In his speech, Mr. Ryan suggested that because of Obamacare, Republicans could be in better shape in 2014 and 2016 than the GOP ticket was heading into the last presidential election.
"We had a complaint against big government in theory," he said, alluding to the fact that the health care law did not take hold until after the election. "Here is the difference now. We have big government in practice and what we are realizing is that the result is nothing close to the rhetoric that was used to sell it."
Iowa activists are used to having presidential candidates parachute into the state.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas visited last month — his third stop in Iowa this year — and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida also have dropped by since the election.
Some governors pondering White House runs also have made the trip, including Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's landslide re-election victory this month also has created buzz, though he has not made the trip since the 2012 election cycle.
Since returning to Capitol Hill, Mr. Ryan has faced criticism from some conservatives for voicing support for immigration reform and for backing the fiscal cliff deal that raised taxes on the top 2 percent of the nation's earners while extending the Bush-era tax cuts for most everyone else.
Mr. Ryan also broke with House Republican leaders to oppose the emergency aid package for areas affected by Superstorm Sandy and the deal that lawmakers struck last month to end the 16-day government shutdown and increase the nation's borrowing limit.
"I think they probably look at him more positive than not," said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa. "He is acceptable more than some Republicans, but he has done some things recently that would cause some conservatives to have some pause."
Robert L. Vander Plaats, the head of the Christian conservative group The Family Leader, said Mr. Ryan will have the opportunity to step out from Mr. Romney's shadow.
"I think what people are going to do with Paul Ryan is they will give him a fair hearing, and they are going to find out who is the real Paul Ryan," Mr. Vader Plaats said.
Brian Kennedy, an adviser to the Romney campaign, said Iowa voters are looking for someone who can "reach not only the base, but also beyond that base and put together a winning coalition."
"I just think there is complete uncertainty on who might be able to do that," Mr. Kennedy said. "There are a lot of potential candidates, and Paul Ryan could certainly be one of them."
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