YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan stumps across battleground states, conservatives flock to see him — and not just because they believe that he and his running mate are on the verge of booting President Barack Obama out of the White House.
For people such as Joy Chickonoski, it is also because they believe that, win or lose, the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman offers a glimpse of the Republican future.
Whether next January finds Ryan moving into the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory or back sleeping in his office on Capitol Hill, "he needs to continue to do what he does best and just trust that his gifts will make room for him, where he needs to be," said Chickonoski, a pastor from the nearby town of Poland who came to see Ryan on Saturday at Youngstown State University.
Lately, Mitt Romney's campaign has decided that Ryan needs to be at center stage. That is partly to take advantage of the buzz around Thursday's vice-presidential debate and partly to quiet the grumbling among Republicans that Ryan had all but disappeared from the national conversation after the GOP convention.
In doing so, the campaign is also drawing attention to the unique role that Ryan plays in the modern conservative movement. He is a signpost to its future, many believe, regardless of what happens on Election Day.
Although it may not have altered the course of the presidential race, Ryan's steady, stumble-free debate performance against an incumbent vice president 27 years his senior enhanced his stature.
"If you're 42 and it's your first national appearance in that kind of situation and you're still on the stage when it's over, you won," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich. "I thought he was gaining confidence as the evening wore on."
"I thought Paul did exceptionally well, and it by no means surprised me. Under stress, he's very calm," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a friend and ally who wept when Ryan delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
"For people who admire Paul Ryan and like Paul Ryan, what they saw was more Paul Ryan," Walker added.
After weeks in which Romney and Ryan had campaigned separately, in recent days they have been making joint appearances.
"Whenever I've seen the two of them together at events, I see a more passionate Mitt Romney," Walker said. "They've not only let [Ryan] be himself, but they've also let him have an influence on Mitt Romney."
Ryan frequently describes his ascent to the ticket as a moment of generational significance, one that gives a seat at the table to those born in the decades after the baby boom. They and their children are the ones, he points out, who will inherit the debts that their parents and grandparents ran up, weakening the safety net for everyone.
Even before he became Romney's running mate, Ryan was regarded as the leading intellectual force in the conservative movement. The House Budget Committee chairman wrote and championed a fiscal blueprint that has been embraced by virtually the entire Republican establishment.
Democrats were also delighted at the choice of Ryan, which presented the opportunity to hang the House-passed budget around Romney's neck. Its most controversial element would transform the Medicare program into a voucher system, giving the elderly an option to shop among health insurance plans.
Democrats warn that under that system, older Americans would end up bearing more of the cost of their health care. Polling shows that the proposal remains unpopular.
In Thursday's debate, Vice President Joe Biden brought it up again: "Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this — a man who introduced a bill that would raise [individual Medicare costs] $6,400 a year — knowing it and passing it, and Romney saying he'd sign it? Or me and the president?"
Adding Ryan to the ticket had conservatives hailing Romney with a word they had almost never used about him before: bold. So there are big expectations for the role that a Vice President Ryan would play in a Romney administration.
Recent history offers a number of models for the No. 2 job.
George H.W. Bush was so far removed from the center of things in Ronald Reagan's White House that he could credibly claim to have been "out of the loop" when the Iran-contra scandal erupted during Reagan's second term.
By contrast, when George W. Bush was elected to the White House he allowed his vice president so much influence that it was sometimes speculated that Dick Cheney was in charge.
Al Gore was handed a portfolio of issues to manage — including environmental policy, technology and reinventing government — during Bill Clinton's two terms as president. The current vice president acts as a sort of free-ranging counselor to Obama, and also oversaw the implementation of the economic stimulus program.
Romney has suggested that Ryan would have a number of jobs in his administration, including a major one handling relations with Congress.
"I anticipate that there will be certain areas that are his areas of expertise and he has passion and concern there. That he'll actually take a lead role in helping oversee those areas and maybe some Cabinet officers who will work primarily with the vice president," Romney said on CBS's "60 Minutes" in August. "But he would also have a role in helping shepherd legislation on the Hill."
If Romney does not win, another set of options will present itself for Ryan.
He would be near the top of just about every short list of prospects for the GOP nomination in 2016.
But he is far from the only rising star.
"Ryan is one of many futures," said Gingrich, naming New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin's Walker. "He needs to win this, because he is the beginning of a generational flood that begins in 2016."
Ryan would not be expected to leave his day job to prepare for a possible presidential run, as former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin did after their tickets lost in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
Ryan is also running for reelection to his House seat and has aired half a dozen TV ads. But if he ends up back in the House, there is a question of where in the hierarchy he would go.
Ryan has said that he would like to chair the Ways and Means Committee, but that spot is not expected to open up until after 2014, when the chairmanship of Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., becomes term-limited.
In the meantime, if Republicans keep their House majority, Ryan could stay on as Budget Committee chairman, though he would have to seek — and almost certainly would be granted — a waiver from the six-year limit on his being the panel's ranking Republican.
Ryan could be a natural leader in finding a way to avoid the fiscal cliff that will confront the government shortly after the election.
But Ryan has often complained that any effort at bipartisanship was "futile" as long as Obama remains in the White House. So his eagerness to play a major role in year-end negotiations — and even his usefulness — would be questionable if Obama were to win a second term.
For now, with a race to win, Ryan cannot afford to give that prospect much consideration. Said Gingrich: "Ryan is not thinking one second about an alternative to being vice president."