NEW YORK -- "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski had a message Wednesday for the Romney campaign: "Let Paul be Paul."
The "Morning Joe" crew was lamenting how Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who's previously gotten the political rock star treatment on the MSNBC show for wonkishly talking budget matters, seems to have become less detail-focused since being chosen as Mitt Romney's running mate. During a Tuesday interview with Fox News' Brit Hume, Ryan said he'd discuss tax policy specifics "in the light of day" -- presumably, after the election.
"You see him in his first two interviews, on '60 Minutes,' he is like completely hanging on the phrase, 'Get the country back on track,'" Brzezinski said. "He says it 12 times. You can tell the campaign has gotten to him."
"When you're the budget chairman, you're the budget chairman, and you can say whatever you want to say because you're the budget chairman," said co-host Joe Scarborough, in a conversation that also included Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. "When you are the vice presidential candidate, it is a harder slog because you've got to make sure that every word you say is lined up."
On Tuesday, the Romney campaign barred reporters from covering Ryan's first fundraiser since joining the ticket, saying the Las Vegas gathering was a "finance event" and thus didn't fall under a previous agreement with the campaign press corps.
Ryan isn't the first member of Congress to join a national ticket and suddenly find his movement constricted, with a presidential campaign staff calling the shots and advising caution when engaging the gaffe-obsessed national media.
But for Ryan, who has received glowing Beltway press coverage in recent days for his "serious" policy ideas, scaling back on access runs the risk of tarnishing a media brand built on a willingness to engage, in detail, on fiscal issues.
In recent years, Ryan has been especially diligent in courting the conservative media, a move that paid off when the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the Weekly Standard recently urged the Romney campaign to select him as a running mate. He's been known to preview budget plans for the conservative media, such as holding an off-the-record meeting in March at Monocle, a Capitol Hill restaurant, to discuss the Republican Party's next tax blueprint. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and CNBC host Larry Kudlow were among the attendees.
"His Beltway haunts are not the bars on Capitol Hill," said Robert Costa, a National Review political reporter. "They're the conference rooms at American Enterprise and Americans For Tax Reform. He's accessible, friendly and engaging. His base is not just the first district of Wisconsin but is the think tank conference rooms and editorial board rooms of conservative outlets."
Costa, who has interviewed Ryan several times, said he "genuinely respects reporters" and has occasionally exhausted those on media conference calls by taking as many questions as can be thrown at him.
"I give him credit for really being prepared for the press," Costa added. "He's able to speak extemporaneously and candidly about what he believes."
But Ryan's engagement with journalists isn't limited to those on his side of the ideological fence.
While some congressional reporters say Ryan isn't always willing to take impromptu questions when strolling through the halls of Congress -- and will put in his iPod earbuds when he's especially unwilling to chat -- he generally gets high marks from journalists covering him everywhere from Capitol Hill to Wisconsin, or writing on his policy ideas for national magazines that don't share his conservative worldview, such as the New Yorker.
"I think the secret to his rise was partly in being very accessible to reporters," said Ryan Lizza, who penned a 6,300-word New Yorker profile on Ryan that was published just last week.
Lizza attributes some of the positive Beltway coverage of Ryan's rollout to his familiar relationship with Washington journalists. Former VP candidate Sarah Palin, in contrast ascended to the national stage in 2008 without long-standing relationships with such journalists and was unprepared for substantive interviews.
"He genuinely believes in the ability to explain himself, explain his ideas," Lizza said, adding that Ryan doesn't "stonewall and treat the press as [his] enemy."
Lizza didn't expect Romney to pick Ryan partly because of how accessible he's been recently. He granted the New Yorker two interviews in the days before his selection, a period when some VP contenders may be wary of speaking to reporters.
But Ryan was still doing interviews during the 10-day period between when Romney selected him and the choice was made public. Mary Spicuzza, a reporter for at the Wisconsin State Journal, said she requested an interview with Ryan last Monday and the congressman called her Wednesday morning at the appointed time.
Ryan maintains strong ties to the local Wisconsin press, regularly making the editorial board rounds and granting interviews. On Saturday, Ryan gave his first interview after getting the nomination to The Gazette, a newspaper serving his hometown of Janesville, Wis. "I think his loyalty to the hometown paper came into play," said Gazette editor Scott Angus on landing the exclusive.
Some veteran Wisconsin journalists, accustomed to access, wonder how Ryan will deal with the trappings of a national campaign, as well as with running alongside a candidate who's long been more cautious when interacting with reporters.
"He's the anti-Romney," said Daniel Bice, the political watchdog columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He loves talking to the press and he's good at talking to the press. It also helps he doesn’t have much baggage."
Bice said that Ryan is "open and likes to discuss and debate ideas." If the Romney campaign tries to lock him down, he said, the result could be similar to what happened to the last Republican ticket. Late in the 2008 race, Palin famously went "rogue" after feeling constrained by Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) campaign.
Craig Gilbert, who serves as the Journal Sentinel's Washington bureau chief and has covered Ryan since his freshman term, said the congressman is "flat out good with the media."
"On 'Morning Joe,' they really like this guy," said Gilbert, who wrote in April about Ryan's frequent TV appearances. "They're fawning all over him. They like his personality. They like his style. He's gotten a huge amount of credit in the national media as someone who's seen as a serious policy guy, who's taking some chances -- a serious guy and not a political guy. That's his self-image."
It remains to be seen how Ryan performs under the intense media scrutiny he will face between now and November. But if history is any guide, he'll likely cut back on engagement.
When CNN's John King asked Ryan about Medicare on Monday at the Iowa State Fair, he joked that "we'll play stump the running mate later." Ryan gave King a brief response while continuing to walk through the fairgrounds.
King, who knows a thing or two about past VP picks, said in an email that other recent presidential and vice presidential candidates who came out of Congress, including McCain, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, were less accessible once they joined national tickets than they were on Capitol Hill.
The Iowa State Fair stop, he said, "was no surprise from an access standpoint," with Ryan being "fairly accommodating while careful not to get into extended reporter conversations."
"It will be interesting going forward -- and as always there will be some tensions inside the campaign about whether to allow him to be more freewheeling like on the Hill or more structured/protected for lack of a better way of putting it," King said. "But it isn't a new dynamic."
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