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KENOSHA, Wis. — In Wisconsin's 1st district, one thing Rep. Paul Ryan (R) and his Democratic opponent Rob Zerban agree on is that the race is already a national one.
The state is consumed by politics more than a year out from November 2012, thanks in part to nine heavily competitive state Senate recall elections, which begin Tuesday. But in the Kenosha-based 1st district, Ryan, the House Budget chairman, is facing his first serious Democratic challenge in years thanks to the national uproar over his budget proposal that seeks to drastically overhaul Medicare.
The seven-term Republican said his race against Zerban, which was already heating up over Independence Day, barely two months after Zerban declared his candidacy, is a template for how things might play out nationwide.
"I think it's more of trying to nationalize a race around the budget," Ryan said in an interview. "It's part of a national narrative they're trying to create about shooting the messenger. It's a way of highlighting their campaign to scare seniors this fall."
Despite his rising national profile, due in part to his budget and Democrats' frequent assaults on it, Ryan appeared a laid-back local Congressman in back-to-back July Fourth parades in his district. In the Milwaukee suburbs of Oak Creek and Franklin, Ryan waved to parade-goers with a host of volunteers in green T-shirts and two of his young children in tow. In interviews, he shrugged off his national status and said his focus will remain on fiscal issues as Budget chairman and as a Congressman from southern Wisconsin.
"I've never really liked to travel, which is why I chose the committee track instead of the leadership track," Ryan said, when asked whether he plans to campaign for candidates throughout the country next fall.
Democrats consider Ryan's a trophy seat to win after losing three of their own committee chairmen in last year's bruising midterm elections.
Zerban's candidacy has buoyed the party as it tries to reclaim its House majority. The Kenosha County supervisor and one-time food services business owner announced his campaign in April and sent out his first email fundraising plea shortly after Democrats won an upset election in New York's 26th district in May. In Kenosha, a manufacturing town badly hurt by the recession, Zerban found a warm reception from out-of-work union employees and die-hard Democrats eager to unseat Ryan.
"I feel like I've been received very warmly," Zerban said. "Granted, I'm not going to Republican Party meetings or anything like that, but I think in the state of Wisconsin, there's a very warm reception to my candidacy. I think they like having a viable candidate that can actually defeat Paul Ryan."
A Democratic aide noted that Zerban is being heavily touted on the national stage and his campaign against Ryan helped boost the party's message for 2012.
"Ryan is an issue in Congressional races around the country. He has been nationalized, via his proposal," the aide said. "This is the right time to be engaged, while people are engaged in Washington and we have a candidate holding Ryan accountable back home with his voters."
Sweating at the July 3 parade in Kenosha, Karen Erb, a 68-year-old retired teacher from Silver Lake, Wis., offered a more frank assessment of Ryan's district.
"A lot of people thought he was a nice guy, good-looking, but no one ever took his plan seriously," she said. "Now they're beginning to understand what he stands for, and they don't like it."
A handful of parade-goers in Kenosha, where Ryan also marched, carried signs blasting the Republican's budget proposal and tying him to Gov. Scott Walker (R), a lightning rod who sparked union outrage this winter with his own budget that targeted collective bargaining rights.
While the pockets of protesters criticizing Ryan on issues ranging from health care to veterans benefits and education represented Democratic outrage in the district — which broke for President Barack Obama in 2008 — they resembled a small portion of the district that spans the southern region of the Badger State. Redistricting, however, will alter the district and might provide Ryan with more of a GOP cushion than he has had in the past.
For now, though, at least in Oak Creek and Morris, Ryan was greeted with cheers, fist pumps and even pleas to run for president.
"Ryan for president!" shouted Larry Schmidt, a 46-year-old teacher who grew up in Oak Creek and lives in Milwaukee. Schmidt's brother John, 56, echoed the sentiment.
"I was discouraged when [Ryan] didn't run for Senate, but I hope he runs for president some day," the self-described independent said.
Ryan demurred on his future, saying that the next title he hopes to hold is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Ryan also said he doesn't feel any blame for Republicans losing the New York special election, which Democrats touted when Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) won against long odds. Democrats hammered Ryan's budget plan in that race and have made it part of their national messaging plan, but so has its author.
"The lesson is, 'don't back down, get out there and you're fine,'" Ryan said.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), who was criticized in the wake of Hochul's win, also predicted that Ryan — and GOP candidates who support his budget plan — will ultimately succeed.
"Paul Ryan has crafted the intellectual content to be able to go toe to toe with any president or any person that wants to talk policy in this country about the things that work and the things that we should be aiming for," Sessions said. "And Paul will win overwhelmingly because he has clear thinking that others lack."
Ryan raised $899,000 in the last quarter. Zerban's fundraising numbers were not available, although he has lined up a host of consultants and can potentially self-fund.
"It's definitely on the national level and everybody's radar," said Zerban, who walked the two-mile Kenosha parade route with a handful of followers. "This race is going to be won by the voters. As we saw in New York, you can be outspent 3-to-1 and still win the race."