If Paul Ryan loses his bid to become vice president, he is still a man with options. The wonky chairman of the House Budget Committee is one of the Republicans' best voices in explaining fiscal issues. Should Mitt Romney's presidential bid fail, Ryan will be a much-sought-after figure in political and business circles.
Even in failure, the 42-year-old Wisconsin native's best days might be ahead of him.
"I refer to Paul Ryan as the Paul Revere of the next generation," said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was chairman of the House Budget Committee when Ryan was an aide there.
"I tell you, he's just getting started," Kasich said of Ryan before a recent rally in Ohio. "He's getting started in the process of helping America and building a much stronger America."
That could be through public education or lobbying, back in his day job as a congressman or biding his time until a presidential run of his own. Unlike his Democratic counterpart, 69-year-old Joe Biden, Ryan is nowhere near retirement; a Biden loss would probably send him home to Delaware.
Publicly, Ryan and his closest allies maintain that momentum is behind the Romney-Ryan ticket. They aren't entertaining any talk about anything different from Ryan settling into the vice president's residence in January. Ryan already has met once with Mike Leavitt, the former health and human services secretary who is building a government-in-waiting for a Romney administration, Ryan advisers said.
But Ryan's biggest boosters realize he probably can write his own ticket, win or lose on Nov. 6.
These Ryan allies spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private proposals they were preparing for Ryan. They insist Ryan himself is not worried about anything beyond the election and is not planning anything except being a governing partner to Romney.
They say that if he fails, Ryan's instincts will be to return to the House — he is running for re-election to his House seat at the same time he's Romney's running mate — and resume his role as the head of the Budget Committee. He would go back to the gym with his workout buddies — fellow congressmen, mostly — and reclaim the healthy lifestyle that is much more difficult to maintain during a national political campaign.
Senior Republicans caution it might not be that easy.
If Romney loses, Ryan will be seen as one of the leading White House contenders in 2016. He will be a national party figure even without being a top member of the House leadership. That could breed resentment among current Republican leaders and perhaps splinter coalitions within the already fractured GOP alliances at the top of the House.
A return also would make Ryan a leading target for Democrats. For the next few years, Democrats would lay traps in legislation, forcing him to take sides on measures that could come back to haunt him during a presidential bid.
That is why some of Ryan's biggest boosters are considering whether it wouldn't be better for Ryan to resign from the House. He could write a book — "saving America" is a theme often bandied about — or teach at a university.
After all, on the campaign trail, Ryan is as much lecturer as campaigner. Aides routinely set up giant video screens so Ryan can use visual aids to walk his audiences through the minutiae of budget politics. Graphs and charts are as common as yard signs and American flags at some events, with Ryan settling into his role as explainer in chief.
It's no accident he embraces the "wonk" label aggressively. It could make him an attractive figure as a guest lecturer or visiting professor.
Or Ryan could set up an office inside a Washington think tank and focus on topics that interest him. That would give him a platform to shape public policy without the frustrations of electoral politics.
Both options would give Ryan some space to contemplate serious issues. One of the chief reasons Romney put him on the ticket — and one of the reasons he accepted — was to have high-minded debates about Washington's relationship with Americans. That notion quickly melted into the partisan rancor of this campaign.
Ryan could cash in and take up a gig as a lobbyist. His family is on solid financial footing, thanks in part to wife Janna Ryan's family money; last year, the couple reported an adjusted gross income of more than $323,000. Yet Ryan himself has never been a major earner. He started out as a congressional aide and waited tables to pay the bills.
Ryan might just take up positions in corporate boardrooms, either as a consultant or director. The lucrative positions, though, could preclude a future White House run if not carefully chosen.
During the Republican presidential primary campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced questions about his profitable network of consulting and media firms. One of his clients was mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which he blamed for the economic crisis of 2008.
If he wins re-election, Ryan could simply settle back into life in Congress.
Sen. John McCain returned to the Senate after his 2000 and 2008 losses. Sen. John Kerry did the same after his 2004 bid and Sen. Joe Lieberman after his 2000 vice presidential failure. McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, returned to be governor of Alaska, until she abruptly resigned seven months later and turned to punditry.
Ryan has shown little interest in following Palin — or other ex-candidates — into media circles. Ryan is more likely to protect his newfound popularity, his credibility and his brand.
And if Romney loses this year, that would guarantee a wide-open field for Republicans and Democrats alike in 2016. Ryan's allies aren't ruling out a bid for the top spot for their friend.