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Ryan emerges from campaign with higher profile, 2016 options

Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney is greeted by wife, Ann Romney, Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and wife, Janna Ryan after conceding the presidency during Mitt Romney's campaign election night event at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on November 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. A
Matthew Cavanaugh

BOSTON Paul Ryan won't be helping Mitt Romney lead the country in a new direction from the White House. But the Wisconsin congressman famous for his small-government budget blueprints has emerged from his first national race with high visibility and a top spot on any list of 2016 presidential prospects.

The immediate future for Ryan lies on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan will be making an abrupt transition from the glare of the campaign trail to the back rooms of Capitol Hill as Congress heads into a lame duck session and negotiations on how to avoid a "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

Ryan did win an election on Tuesday night: the race for his House seat in Wisconsin, where state election law allowed him to run concurrently with his vice presidential bid. Unless he resigns from the House - a fate that longtime aides and close confidantes have a hard time imagining -- Hill staffers expect he'll have no trouble obtaining the necessary waiver on term limits to keep his chairmanship in the next Congress.

"I think at the end of the day he's committed to advancing these ideas in a political forum, which suggests elected office," said Matthew Spalding, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a longtime Ryan friend.

Ryan issued a statement Wednesday addressing his short-term plans. "I look forward to spending some time with my family in the coming days and then continuing my responsibilities as chairman of the House Budget Committee and representative of Wisconsin's First Congressional District," he said, after saying he was "immensely proud" of the GOP campaign and grateful to nominee Mitt Romney for putting him on the ticket.

There was a time when Ryan considered quitting Congress: in 2006, after Democrats won both chambers. It was a "gut check," moment, as one longtime aide described it, and after much soul-searching the episode led Ryan to write his first "Roadmap for America's Future." The document marked Ryan's head-first jump into the sensitive issue of entitlement reform and made him into a popular target for Democrats. But it also made him the intellectual leader of the House Republicans, a stature that will only be enhanced by his vice presidential run and the debt and spending issues at the top of the national agenda.

"With the fiscal cliff issues and everything that's looming ... he's going to be center stage in the negotiations and at some level will have claim to be titular heir to the Republican Party," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who worked on John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.

The big question that remains, then, is what the next cycle will hold for Ryan. At the request of many conservatives, he explored the possibility of his own presidential bid this year, but ultimately opted to sit out the cycle due to the pressures on his young family - his children are 10, 9 and 7 - and a sense that Congress was the best place to change national policies.

He has had no conversations about 2016 among his closest staff, according to a longtime aide who was granted anonymity to speak more freely. If he decides to run, he will do so from a more advantageous position. Close to 40 percent of people hadn't heard of him before he was nominated, but according to CNN/ORC polling, that had dropped to single digits within about 10 days. His favorability has stayed

"He's well respected and he's done a good job as the VP candidate," said Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. He predicted Ryan would start with an edge among the deep bench of Republicans who may consider a run, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Indeed, Ryan proved to be an effective campaigner who even held audiences captive when he began using a slideshow about the rising debt at town halls.

The Romney campaign projected rosy images of Ryan as a legislator in search of bipartisanship, but his appeal at this point is concentrated among conservatives who like his prescriptions, which include steep cuts in taxes and spending, and restructuring Medicare as a voucher program.

Rep. Chris van Hollen, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Ryan is a passionate advocate, not a lawmaker who pursues compromise. Both are necessary to tackle the nation's deficits and debt, he said. "Will he continue to be the standard bearer for the far right of the Republican Party, or will he demonstrate a new willingness to work together in order to meet our budget challenges?" van Hollen asked of Ryan in an email.

It's a question that underscores the strengths Ryan would bring to a presidential primary race, and the strategic decisions he'll have to make with an eye on his future.

  • Rebecca Kaplan On Twitter»

    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.