Janna Ryan stays under the radar

By MJ LeeFor

Janna Ryan isn't a conservative firebrand like Lynne Cheney or a prominent political wife like Tipper Gore.

In fact, she might be one of the lowest-profile spouses in recent memory to join the vice presidential ticket.

A month after her husband was named Mitt Romney's running mate, Ryan remains a quiet presence on the campaign trail only occasionally appearing with Paul Ryan on the stump and rarely granting interviews.

But given her political heritage and familiarity with D.C. politics, those who have worked closely with spouses of high-profile national politicians say Ryan has abundant potential to positively affect her husband's campaign.

"She probably provides a very unique perspective a woman's perspective," said Ginny Justice, Lynne Cheney's former spokeswoman. "Ryan's out there talking about improving [and] growing jobs and the economy and I think she can provide some interesting insight into how this impacts women. She's considered a typical woman in America today, trying to juggle multiple balls in the air while raising a family."

A graduate of Wellesley College and George Washington University law school, when she met her now-husband at the age of 31, Ryan was a tax attorney for PriceWaterhouseCooper and her Washington, D.C. work experience included a stint for Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.) on Capitol Hill.

An Oklahoma native, her cousin is retiring Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and her uncle David Boren is a former governor and senator.

Despite the political pedigree, Ryan seems reticent to be directly in media spotlight and has so far kept a low visibility as her husband tirelessly crisscrosses the country to attend rallies and fundraisers.

The day after the VP announcement, the Romneys and the Ryans stood on stage together at a campaign event in Moorseville, N.C. When Mitt Romney turned and offered the microphone to Mrs. Ryan, she shook her head no, smiling.

Ryan has kept her interactions with the media to a bare minimum, giving her only interview to date to People magazine. Glimpses of her caught by reporters in the past few weeks show her with her three young children close by - a reminder of the relatively quiet life she was living in her husband's hometown of Janesville, Wis., before she suddenly found herself in a world of stump speeches, Secret Service agents and reporters.

Voters who see Ryan on the trail say they know little about his wife, but their hazy impression of her is a positive one.

"She seems sweet and honest I think she's an attorney?" said Tom Smith, a 67-year-old retired civil engineer from New Bern, N.C.

"I don't know much about her but what I saw, she stands behind him and they're one spirit. I think they're a good couple from what I've seen," said Bob Tidwell, a preacher from Bedford Ohio.

"From all I've seen and heard, she seems a good person, good mother, good wife," said Tammy Hall, a 53-year-old homemaker from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Compared to some of the most recent spouses of top-of-the-ticket candidates, Ryan's lack of experience with presidential campaigns is unusual.

By the time Al Gore announced his bid for president in 1999, his wife Tipper was a presidential and senatorial campaign veteran. Jill Biden was in familiar territory when President Barack Obama chose her husband who had twice made unsuccessful bids for president as his running mate. Cindy McCain, too, knew the highs and lows of a national contest when her husband, John McCain, announced his second run for the White House in 2007.

For now, the campaign is mum on whether there are plans for Ryan to play a more prominent role in the weeks ahead.

A Ryan aide this week declined to comment on her schedule for the coming weeks, only confirming that Mrs. Ryan was back in Wisconsin after having been on the road post-Tampa. Asked about Paul Ryan's thoughts on whether his wife should start speaking in public, the aide said, "Any thoughts regarding Mrs. Ryan are between Mrs. Ryan and Mr. Ryan."

But Republicans strategists say that if and when Mrs. Ryan starts playing a more public role for the campaign, she could prove to be incredibly valuable to her husband's ticket.

"Janna is a seasoned political partner who lives a real middle-class, mother life with real Americans in the middle of the country," said veteran GOP strategist Mary Matalin. "Hard to imagine a greater asset to the campaign than such an authentic presence."

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has known the Ryans for years, pointed to Ryan's impressive resume as proof that she is fully capable of having a solid grasp of both the political and policy aspects of a presidential campaign and could speak comfortably about substantive issues.

"She has good and sharp political instincts. She knows Capitol Hill well having worked as both a staffer and a lobbyist," Cole said. "She was a tax lobbyist so she knows the fiscal issues as well as anybody and probably more than any of the spouses that, with well due respect, didn't come from that background, whether it's Michelle or Ann or Jill. She did."

Ryan is also in a unique position to help boost the Romney-Ryan ticket's appeal to female voters if she emulates Ann Romney and speaks directly to this critical voting bloc.

In recent stump speeches including her prime-time convention address last week, Ann Romney, whose husband's poll numbers have lagged among women, has been fighting hard to paint her husband as a man who is acutely aware of and sensitive to the struggles that women across the country are facing.

But former Cheney spokeswoman Justice said that the most helpful thing that Janna Ryan can do for her husband at this point may actually be something that is invisible to the public.

"The most important thing she does right now is providing counsel and support and trust and loyalty to her husband," she said, explaining that her former boss was willing to tell her husband things that "his aides and other people inside the White House" often would not. "Outside the echo chambers of D.C., she can give him honest feedback: you flubbed a joke or a line."

Noelia Rodriguez, Laura Bush's former press secretary, said she would find it "surprising" if Ryan chooses to remain behind-the-scenes. If and when she eventually makes a broader debut, Ryan will have the ears of many curious Americans and the pressure will be on to deliver a memorable and substantive performance, Rodriguez pointed out.

"She's number four. Everybody wants Romney, and then the congressman, and then Mrs. Romney and then Mrs. Ryan. So she might be low on the totem pole, but for that reason when she does speak people will listen because she hasn't been out there a lot," she said.

She added, "This is a one-time shot. There are only a couple of months left and there's no time for regrets. It's time for doing the things that she thinks will be helpful to the ticket and to voters of America. It really is time to be comfortable with the uncomfortable."

Republicans hoping that Ryan will start giving stump speeches got a small preview of her potential last week when she spoke at the Women for Romney breakfast in Tampa. Delivering brief remarks that lasted just one minute, Ryan spoke clearly and energetically, with a few minor hiccups that seemed to be the result of stage nerves.

After the speech, Ryan walked back to her seat with a big smile on her face, pretending to wipe away sweat from her forehead as she let out a big exhale.

This week, voters who came out to see Paul Ryan in swing states like North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado said they wouldn't hold it against the mother of three if she decided to maintain a low profile in the month leading up to Election Day.

"She just needs to be in the background and be a good supporter of the children," said Claire Marshburn, a retired sales associate from Daytona, Fla., adding that she believes it is "not necessary" for Ryan to make stump speeches to positively impact her husband's campaign.

Said one female retired teacher from central Iowa who attended a Ryan event in Adel Wednesday: "She has small children and that's probably where a lot of her emphasis needs to be."

MJ Lee is a reporter for POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.