Conda also takes credit for introducing Romney to Ryan years later, during a Capitol Hill visit in 2007 when Romney was running for president.
"It was supposed to be a short courtesy meeting, but it turned out to be an hour, talking about tax reform, entitlements — a very wonkish discussion," Conda recalled. "Afterward, Romney said, 'I really like this guy. He's very sharp.'"
Ryan, after graduating from college in 1992, returned to Washington for a paid stint with Kasten's office. Connections with Conda and others soon led to a job with Empower America, a think tank featuring conservative luminaries such as Jack Kemp, the former congressman and vice presidential candidate, and Bill Bennett, the former drug czar and education secretary.
"I gave him a book list I'd been carrying around ... Shakespeare, the founding documents, the Federalist Papers, a book of quotations," Bennett said. "Everything I gave to him to read, he read."
Ryan later was a speechwriter for Kemp, then legislative director for Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
A turning point came in 1997 when Ryan, after getting a taste of how Washington works, returned to Janesville. He went to work for the family construction firm, but the change of address had other benefits.
Ryan knew that the 1st District congressional seat would be opening up because the incumbent Republican was running for the Senate. Ryan used his time at home to rebuild local ties and line up support. He figured that if he was to return to Washington, being a congressman would at least give him the chance to commute regularly back to Janesville.
At 28, Ryan had never run for any sort of public office, but he campaigned aggressively. One of his endorsements came from the Wisconsin State Journal, which called him "The Rich Kid With The Common Touch."
"Ryan might sound like a policy wonk (and, in some ways, he is) but he's also a likable candidate who appears at home in many different settings," the paper said.
Ryan won the GOP primary over a musician with 80 percent of the vote, then trounced his Democratic opponent in the general election with 57 percent of the vote.
Jim Johnson, owner of four Janesville convenience stores and a lifelong friend of the Ryan clan, remembers a social gathering at which Ryan announced he'd run for Congress.
"We were all skeptical and asked a lot of questions — and he was ready," Johnson said. "That was the toughest race he's had. Since then, he's been able to focus on policy rather than getting re-elected."
Life was about to change in other ways, too, for Ryan. During his first term in Congress, he met and married Janna Little, a lawyer and lobbyist from an affluent Oklahoma family who was working in the Washington area. She's a first cousin of retiring Rep. Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat.
Their courtship included a deer-hunting sortie in Wisconsin in which Ryan shot an eight-point buck — and later credited Janna with spotting it. The article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announcing their engagement reported that Ryan "does his own skinning and butchering, and makes his own Polish sausage."
The Ryans now have three children — Liza, 10, Charles, 8, and Sam, 7 — who live in Janesville with their mother. Ryan has gone back frequently for weekend visits, attending Mass at St. John Vianney Church, doing yard work. While in Washington, he has slept on a cot in his office rather than rent a place.
Yet during his political ascension, Ryan resisted pleas to run for governor of Wisconsin, citing his commitment to the budget debate in Congress.
"I didn't want to walk away from the conversation I started and the fight I'm in," he told the AP.
In his early years in Congress, Ryan built his reputation mostly behind the scenes. More recently, he's become one of the highest-profile members of the House, to the point where he has engaged in verbal showdowns with President Barack Obama.