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CNN exclusive: Ryan's debate prep as meticulous as he is

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
October 11, 2012 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ryan says he prepares for big events like VP debate the same way: intense study
  • One adjustment for GOP running mate is having team help him choose his words
  • Ryan says he knows 'Joe,' his debate opponent, from his time in Congress
  • Brother says meticulous preparation came from lessons from father before he died

Washington (CNN) -- Paul Ryan has a constant companion on the campaign trail -- a weighty burden he clearly can't live without.

It's an oversized, well-worn brown briefcase that holds about 40 pounds of paperwork that he's been studying nonstop to prepare for his debate with Vice President Joe Biden.

Ryan sat down for an exclusive interview with CNN to give some insight into how he is getting ready for his 90-minute face-off.

As he held the bulging briefcase in his lap, he told us that this is the way he has gotten ready for moments large and small his whole life: intense study.

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"I do a lot of reading, that's what I've always done -- briefings and reading," Ryan said.

We asked Ryan about what one of his hunting partners told us about how he prepares to go after his prey, usually deer.

The friend said that before Ryan goes hunting he washes his clothes in unscented detergent, takes a shower with unscented soap and sprays unscented material on his boots -- all steps that hunters are known to take generally, but Ryan takes it to a completely different level.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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"If you're into archery and bow hunting, that's the way to do it and be successful. I like the strategy of bow hunting and it takes a lot of preparation and I do take it seriously because I am much more successful if I do things properly and prepare the right way," Ryan said.

"I have always just believed that if you're going to do something, do it well."

How does Ryan's hunting prep mirror his debate prep?

"This stage is kind of new for me and I'm taking it very seriously," he replied. "I'm just doing my homework and studying the issues and I'll know he'll come and attack us. The problem he has is he has Barack Obama's record to run on."

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Talk to anyone who knows Ryan well and they will use one word to describe him more than any other: prepared.

Ryan's older brother Tobin has been helping with his political career since he began his first congressional campaign in 1997 at age 27. He said Ryan has a "very heavy hand" in everything he does, and he has always been meticulous.

Tobin Ryan laughs at the huge stack of briefing papers Ryan carries around now -- a far cry from the way it was back in 1998 when he helped his brother get ready for his first debate as a candidate for Congress.

"I think we had about eight sheets of one-sided paper that listed out issues. I didn't really have to prepare Paul. It's never been an issue. This is a guy who absorbs more in a day than I think is humanly possible," Tobin Ryan said.

Steve King has been a close friend and political supporter since Ryan's first congressional run. He said Ryan, who sleeps on a cot in his congressional office in Washington, is known to be up studying briefing papers so late he often falls asleep face-first at his desk.

Inside Biden's debate preparations

Debate prep partner 'immersed himself into being Joe Biden'

Ryan's countless hours of debate prep have consisted not just of reading and studying, but also role-playing with mock debates. Former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey has been standing in as moderator Martha Raddatz. Ted Olson, the former solicitor general and renowned hard-charging litigator, has been playing the role of Biden.

Ryan said Olson has "immersed himself into being Joe Biden."

"I've done lots of mock debates with Ted. He's come to Janesville (Wisconsin), we've done debates there. We've done debates in hotels around the country where I am at the time," Ryan said. "We sit around a table, we have a moderator, and he and I debate each other. He (Olson) knows my record, he's studied it, he's studied what we do in Congress, arguments that the president and vice president use to try to win their debates by default."

A Republican source familiar with Ryan's prep tells CNN that while Olson has spent a lot of time going over lines and ideas with Ryan on the road, Ryan has also participated in half a dozen or more formal mock debates -- keeping the events to the 90-minute time as if they were the real thing.

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The source said that for a while Olson would "break character" and dissect an answer with Ryan, but as the debate has gotten closer Olson has stayed in character and continued to pound away at Ryan as if he were Biden.

Tobin Ryan, who has been on the campaign trail a lot with his brother, has had a behind-the-scenes look at just how seriously the Ryan team has taken his debate prep.

"They carve out 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, if possible two hours here. And if anyone encroaches on that time, you hear from people that you can't do that. Paul's got to do his reading."

As with most vice presidential running mates, Ryan was thrust into the spotlight and given a team of people to work with. Though many of Ryan's traveling campaign staff are those he has known for a long time and is comfortable with, he isn't used to having such a large team helping decide what he says.

Tobin Ryan said there are times his brother pushes back and tells his staff he doesn't feel comfortable saying something a certain way.

"There are times when he's finally like, 'I just don't speak that way,' " Tobin Ryan said.

Did Ryan call Palin for advice on 'Joe'?

The only other person to face Biden in a vice presidential debate is Sarah Palin.

With all that meticulous debate prep, we asked if Ryan had called Palin for advice.

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"You know, I haven't. I really don't know her. I only met her once and that was about two years ago," Ryan said.

Palin famously asked Biden if she could call him Joe at the beginning of their debate. According to Palin aides at the time, she did that because she kept accidentally calling him "O'Biden" during her debate prep.

Ryan said he knows Biden pretty well because they served in Congress together for years, and he does call him Joe.

"I like Joe personally quite a bit, I just disagree with his policies," said Ryan, who also said he would only call Biden "Joe" if the vice president decides to be "casual."

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Meticulous approach comes from teenage tragedy

"Life is short, you've got to make the most of it. And so you attack it with all the enthusiasm that you can," Ryan said. "That's just kind of the way I approach life."

Seizing the moment is a lesson teenage Ryan learned from tragedy: his father's untimely death at 55.

Ryan talks often about being forced to grow up fast to help take care of his mother and ailing grandmother. But Ryan was also playing out the advice his father repeatedly impressed upon him.

Tobin Ryan recalls their father, an accomplished attorney also named Paul, telling them to "stretch your mind" and saying "you need to absorb."

"Paul grew up in an environment where if you made a comment, you know, our dad would tell us further, 'What do you mean?' Why do you mean that? Are you thinking big enough?' So I have a feeling that Paul, in that sort of discourse, he's latched in to the whole debate process."

In high school, after his father died, Ryan dived into his studies and extracurricular activities. He was in 10 clubs; he was class president; he was prom king.

He was also voted "biggest brown-noser" his senior year.

The ambition that may have won him that moniker stayed with Ryan into his early adulthood.

While living and working in Washington as a twenty-something, he sought out high-profile Republicans as bosses and mentors who were like-minded about supply-side economics and espousing what Ryan has called individualism over collectivism. Ryan became extremely close with former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett when he wrote speeches and did research at their think tank, Empower America.

When asked what made him think, in his twenties, that he was qualified to go back to Janesville and run for Congress, Ryan said Kemp and Bennett helped give him the confidence, after teaching him about the importance of what he calls the "power of ideas."

"What Jack, and Bill Bennett as well, taught me was that the power of ideas is great -- that if you really believe in a cause you can make a difference in this country. I learned at a young age that if you apply yourself, you can actually make a difference."

Ryan also cultivated important Republican players back home, like Steve King.

King said he chose to back Ryan as the GOP candidate in the open congressional seat in 1998 over other more experienced candidates.

"One or two were frankly not happy with me. And one was kind of a close personal friend," recalled King, who said his decision to back Ryan shattered that friendship.

But King said he never regretted it, because from "day one" it was clear that Ryan was an "old soul."

"He gets it," King said.

Ryan also had something others considering a run for Congress in the 1st District of Wisconsin didn't: the Ryan name.

His large family has been in the area since the 19th century. His uncle founded Ryan Inc., a highly successful dirt-moving company. Until Ryan's father died, his name was on the law firm that towers over the center of town.

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Luck of the Irish tie

Mitt Romney noted to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Ryan has never debated in the kind of forum he will be in against Biden, but Ryan has had election year debates as a candidate for Congress.

We showed Ryan a photograph of one of his debates against his Democratic opponent during his first campaign, against Democrat Lydia Spotswood.

He noticed that he was wearing what he called his "lucky Irish tie," a green one that he wore on most of his election nights during his seven congressional campaigns.

Will he wear it during his debate with Biden?

"I don't know. I have to see if I can dig it up," he said with a laugh

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'I'm not intimidated'

In that first congressional campaign, Spotswood was 47 years old. She was quoted then as saying she was old enough to be Ryan's mother.

Biden, 69, also is a generation older than Ryan, 42. Not to mention, as Ryan pointed out over and over, Biden has extensive experience debating on a national stage as a vice presidential candidate and presidential candidate during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Is Ryan intimidated?

"No I'm not intimidated," replied Ryan, "I'm actually excited about it. I came to Congress when I was 28 years old. I'm used to debating people who are older," he said, though he also noted that one of the reasons his team chose Ted Olson to play the role of Biden in mock debates is because he is "about Joe's age."

What questions would you ask the VP candidates? Share with us on CNN iReport

CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Melissa Dunst contributed to this report

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