Seven-term Rep. Paul Ryan is the Republican out front with a message politicians of any stripe don't like to say out loud: Medicare, Medicaid and someday soon Social Security must be reformed or cut outright if the nation's deficit is to be brought under control.
He's delivering that inconvenient truth in a role he's coveted for years, as the Republicans' new Budget Committee chairman. Ryan is aware that plenty of colleagues are balking. And if the nation's aging, fiscally strained voters reject Ryan's "Path to Prosperity"?
"We can all go do something else with our lives," Ryan, 41, said Tuesday.
In the meantime, he says Americans "are ready to be talked to like adults, not children" about what's needed to bring increasingly dangerous deficits under control: big changes in all-but-untouchable programs, including aid for the elderly and the poor.
"Hopefully," he says, "that kind of adult conversation can occur."
The messenger is a youthful father of three with an enthusiasm for fitness who is as likely to have Led Zeppelin as Beethoven playing through the ear buds he often wears around Capitol Hill. He leads sessions of a workout routine called P90X for a few colleagues as many as five times a week. He's an avid bow hunter who emails from the brush as he waits for deer.
Ryan's also known for at least one salty Christmas gift exchange: He gave Rep. James Sensenbrenner, also of Wisconsin, nose clippers in a box from Tiffany's after Sensenbrenner gifted Ryan a reindeer that dispensed candy from the back end.
Ryan told The Washington Post that he's not a "root canal" Republican focused on making America suffer for a broader goal.
But to a nation just getting to know him, Ryan is a wonky "budgeteer" armed with graphs and PowerPoint presentations to help illustrate his "Roadmap for America's Future" in 2008 and, on Tuesday, his "Path to Prosperity," both of which prescribe painful solutions for the nation's fiscal ills.
People are listening, some in high places.
Last year at the GOP retreat in Baltimore, Obama referenced Ryan's alternative budget proposal with a shout-out any author would envy.
"I've read it. I can tell you what's in it," Obama said. The plan, the president added, was "a serious proposal," and Ryan "a sincere guy."
This year, Ryan made his pitch as the GOP's responder to Obama's State of the Union address. And on Tuesday, he delivered the Budget Committee's "Path to Prosperity," a proposal for the 2012 budget that even some Republicans worry could do the party more harm than good in next year's elections.
"We must cut spending and tighten our belt, but House Republicans have chosen to do so on the backs of America's seniors, not the big oil companies making record profits and getting tens of billions in taxpayer subsidies," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted in an email later in the day.
Ryan shrugged at such criticism.
"We're here to try and fix this country's problems," he told reporters. "If that means we're giving our political adversaries a political weapon to use against us - which, by the way, they will have to distort, demagogue and lie to use it - shame on them."
Editor's note: not mentioned in this AP article is that Ryan is a religious man. He is a member of St. John Vianney’s Catholic Parish in Janesville, WI.