TAMPA — Paul Ryan has vaulted to the top of the list of GOP future stars, ahead of Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Rob Portman as the favorite to be the next Republican presidential candidate if Mitt Romney loses.
He'll face tough choices about his next steps if he doesn't win the vice presidency.
He would return to the House with a higher profile, a better fundraising network and more grass roots support than any other congressional Republican in modern times.
But he would be going back to a political mess: The Republican House is deeply unpopular, every tough vote would be scrutinized and history isn't on his side: James Garfield, in 1880, was the only man ever elected to the presidency directly from the House.
Ryan is also bumping against the six-year term limit as budget committee chairman, and the job he's always wanted — chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee — won't be free for some time.
Republicans inside and outside Congress have long wanted Ryan to run for a leadership job, and he would certainly have significant support for speaker if Ohio's John Boehner stepped aside, which his allies expect he'll do within the next four years. But Ryan has shown no real interest in becoming speaker.
What Ryan would be left with is four years between presidential elections as the highest profile star of a gridlocked Congress.
Ryan's friends say these are all good problems to have. And he'll be a national leader.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who has long been close with Ryan, doesn't want to entertain the hypothetical but admits that his friend is already the 2016 front-runner.
"Paul Ryan, if something was to go wrong, would be the early front-runner to be the nominee in four years," Nunes told POLITICO.
Still, the path to 2016 is rife with political land mines in the House.
If he decides to return to Capitol Hill, he'll run into a familiar problem: how to cut a deficit-reduction deal with President Barack Obama without alienating his fiscal conservative base. If he embraces something less than a strictly conservative tax and spending deal, the base will rage against him. If he opposes party leaders, he risks dividing the Republican Party.
The Wisconsin Republican will have to take thousands of more votes on Capitol Hill as part of a House Republican Conference that's constantly pulling to the right. Ryan will be the most visible man in the marble halls.
If he leaves Congress for the private sector — he has told some friends he would like to — it might take him out of the spotlight and allow other Republicans to step into that void.
Ryan would also be fighting history. The list of vice presidential losers in recent decades includes Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, John Edwards and Geraldine Ferraro — none of whom ended up making a serious presidential run four years after being on the losing ticket.
The standard line from friends who know Ryan best is he just wants to be Ways and Means chairman — a humble goal, but one that may not be achievable before the next presidential election. And writing tax bills in a divided Congress with a Democratic president isn't exactly the path to conservative stardom — nor is it a great way to keep a national media profile.
"When you talk to Paul Ryan, I think more than anything, in his heart of hearts, what he wants to do is be the chairman of Ways and Means," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "He really does like policy, he really does want tax reform and some of these other things, and that's not necessarily the perch he wants to do that. He is a very powerful member of the House, he can push the ball in one direction or the other, he has a great working relationship with Speaker Boehner; I don't think he necessarily goes back and tries to challenge him."
Chaffetz added, "I shudder to think of the idea of another four years of Barack Obama. Let's pretend that happens. They are really going to have to deal with Paul Ryan because he will have that mantle there in the House, continuing to make that argument, and you have to deal with the House of Representatives at some point."
Ryan's team won't even entertain that idea.
"Paul Ryan and the entire team are 100 percent focused on ensuring Mitt Romney becomes the next president of the United States," said Brendan Buck, Ryan's spokesman.