Is Paul Ryan the man to beat in 2016?

Lefty Kevin Drum thinks so. I’m skeptical, but Ryan’s better positioned than we usually give him credit for when we’re kicking around 2016 possibilities.

There’s his steady series of “unheralded” anti-poverty outreach trips that always manage to be just heralded enough to get sympathetic press coverage. He brokered a budget deal with Patty Murray that was businesslike and low-drama but didn’t alienate the tea party crowd too badly. Today, in a hearing about the CBO’s report on Obamacare, he acknowledged that the report didn’t say that employers would be cutting jobs—points for intellectual honesty!—while also calling Obamacare a “poverty trap”—points for demagoguery! This is all stuff that seems very delicately calculated to stay in the good graces of the tea party base while building up plenty of policy substance cred that will keep him attractive to moderate voters.

On the flip side, who are his big competitors? Chris Christie is toast. Marco Rubio is inexperienced to begin with, and then muffed his chance for statesmanlike glory when he staked his reputation on immigration reform and came up empty. Jeb Bush can’t even get his mother’s endorsement. Scott Walker is getting buzz, but he strikes me as having too much baggage. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are novelty candidates, not to be taken seriously. And although I used to think Bobby Jindal might have a chance, he’s had a rough past couple of years.

When the Des Moines Register polled Iowans just before Christmas on who their favorite Republicans were, number one was — ta da — Paul Ryan. Obviously: On sheer name recognition alone, as the reigning VP nominee he blows most of the rest of the field out of the water. He’s as personally likable as any of his rivals, and he is, technically, now “next in line” in a party that tends to go that route when making hard choices in the primaries. And with Christie now flailing, he’d be primed to pick up some of Romney’s rich friends as donors if he jumped in. Everyone thinks he’d rather stay put and either be Speaker or chairman of Ways and Means, where he could set the agenda on entitlement reform, but there’s a reason he hasn’t ruled out running for president. He’d stand a fair chance at the nomination.

But he’s got problems. One is that he’s not as much of a darling of the base as he was three years ago, when deficit reduction was front and center. Conservatives didn’t like his budget deal and they really don’t like his shilling for Boehner’s amnesty push. If you’ve ruled out Rubio because of his work on the Gang of Eight, why at this point wouldn’t you also rule out Ryan? That’s not an insuperable obstacle for him — he’d be more of a centrist champion if he ran than a tea-party one — but his base is smaller than it used to be. Another obvious problem is that nominating Ryan would bring about the Mediscare apocalypse in the general election as Democrats ramp up into “he wants to kill your grandma” mode. Is 51 percent of our entitlement-loving electorate capable of resisting that pitch? Remember how Ryan didn’t do much talking publicly after being added to the ticket in 2012? There’s a reason for that. Finally, after nominating a senator and then a businessman who briefly served as governor, I think the party wants to nominate a governor who’ll run on his gubernatorial record next time. That’s part of Christie’s appeal to the establishment and a big part of Scott Walker’s appeal to grassroots righties. If you thought Obama governed like an amateur, the pitch will go, then you should vote for someone with executive experience this time.

Key question, then: What’s the case for Ryan over Walker? They’re both low-key Wisconsinites, both young, both with battle scars from their fiscal initiatives. Walker’s win over PEUs is arguably the biggest conservative policy victory since Obama took office, and seems to me increasingly recognized as such. For all his alleged “baggage,” he’s still on track to win reelection in a state where the left and its union allies have been frantic to take him down for the past three years. Ryan’s got him beat in name recognition right now but all governors have to cope with better-known rivals when they first start running. And at this point, Walker has a broader base between centrists and conservatives than Ryan does. What am I missing here?

Update: No joke, guys. I saw it with my own eyes.