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Choice of Ryan reflects rise of young conservatives

Todd J. Gillman

WASHINGTON -- At 42, Paul Ryan will be the first nominee for vice president born after the Baby Boom, but he is hardly the only rising conservative star who hasn't yet gone gray.

There are tea party senators, union-busting governors and rabble-rousing House members. And with Ryan's selection as Mitt Romney's running mate cementing their ascendance, they are poised to redefine the party and the conservative movement to a degree not seen since the days of Goldwater or Reagan.

It's a striking regeneration for a party that, four years ago, looked to be headed for years of rebuilding after its nominee, the oldest in history, lost the White House to a young, charismatic Democrat.

"What you're seeing is not just a series of personnel changes but a generational transformation of the Republican Party," said Ralph Reed, president of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. "You have to go all the way back to the early to mid-'60s to see a similar passing of the torch."

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan in particular has positioned himself as a thought leader among conservatives, thanks to his budget blueprint -- denounced by critics as callous toward the middle class and needy, and embraced by others as a daring and overdue way to avoid a fiscal crisis. Romney's decision to put him on the ticket makes him the pre-eminent member of the party's under-50 club.

Though hardly the only one. Freshmen Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Texas Senate nominee Ted Cruz, are also poised to lead a possible conservative renaissance. At 49, Paul is the old man of the bunch. Cruz and Rubio are 41.

"It's like we've got a whole Triple-A farm team coming up to the major leagues at one time," said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. "They've got nice personalities, they're terribly articulate, they're very well educated, they're up on the issues. That's given us all a spring in the step."

Ryan's budget plan entails big cuts to Social Security benefits for future retirees, and a less generous health care safety net. Rubio embraced that approach in winning a Senate seat in 2010, upending assumptions that such talk would be politically suicidal, especially in a senior-rich state such as Florida.

Reed, who also mentioned South Carolina's 40-year-old governor, Nikki Haley, said that the new leaders are defined by "a willingness to be honest with the American people."

The short list of rising conservative titans varies from activist to activist.

Some cite governors such as 44-year-old Scott Walker of Ryan's home state, Wisconsin, and New Jersey's Chris Christie (49) for their showdowns with public employee unions, and efforts by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (41) to root out corruption.

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said any list would be incomplete without a few more wrinkly "fresh" faces, though, such as tea party-backed Senate nominees Richard Mourdock in Indiana (60) and Deb Fischer in Nebraska (61). And he noted that the 90 or so freshmen swept into the U.S. House on the 2010 tea party wave represent a spectrum of ages.

"We've got a whole group of new faces," Cardenas said.

The last GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, has remained a huge force in conservative circles for four years. Though she decided to forego a bid for president, she wielded her clout in Cruz's race and numerous other intraparty brawls this year, in nearly all cases helping an insurgent defeat an establishment-backed Republican.

It's doubtful that Ryan could match that influence.

"Paul Ryan uses reason more as his power of persuasion. Sarah Palin uses emotion," Cardenas said. "Both are very important. Both get us to the same place."

Up-and-coming Republicans at a glance

SENATORS

Rand Paul of Kentucky: At 49, the son of tea party legend Rep. Ron Paul is a darling of the movement. Overcame the Senate majority leader's hand-picked candidate to win his seat.

Marco Rubio of Florida: The 41-year-old is a charismatic Latino who beat a former governor backed by the GOP establishment.

Ted Cruz of Texas (nominee): If the 41-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer wins in November, Texas becomes the biggest state with a tea party senator -- ensuring a huge megaphone for Cruz.

REPRESENTATIVES

Eric Cantor of Virginia: The House majority leader, 49, heads the "young guns" troika that includes Ryan and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy and is a good bet to become speaker someday.

GOVERNORS

Nikki Haley of South Carolina: The 40-year-old was a surprise winner with tea party backing and could be a top female voice for the party in future years.

Bobby Jindal of Louisiana: At 41, he's already in his second term after a stint in Congress. -- The Dallas Morning News


By TODD J. GILLMAN
The Dallas Morning News