Ron Paul: Fear and loathing on the campaign trail
Delve into the crosstabs of an Iowa poll and you’ll see that Ron Paul supporters stand apart from the backers of other GOP presidential hopefuls.
Talk to an Iowa GOP caucus-goer about Paul and you’ll witness the uneasy dynamic his ascendant candidacy has created within the politics of the Republican Party.
In interviews with more than a dozen likely voters who attended events across Iowa for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) over the weekend, a portrait emerged of a conservative GOP electorate that is wary of – and often furious about – the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman’s presidential bid as well as the base of support he has built among an atypical Republican electorate.
The antipathy toward Paul and his supporters expressed by some backers of the other GOP contenders underscores the challenge of determining the broader impact of a potential win by the Texas congressman in Iowa tomorrow – a real possibility, according to recent polls.
Paul’s supporters skew younger, more independent, more secular and more dovish on foreign policy, as The Post’s Aaron Blake reports – all qualities that place Paul’s base in the minority among Republican primary voters and, as a result, point to a firm ceiling in his support.
Those who support Paul tend to be passionate and vocal in their support of the congressman’s libertarian views on a broad range of matters, from economic and social issues as well as foreign policy. His supporters, like Paul himself, place a particular emphasis on their belief in a limited constitutional government.
But interviews with those who attended Romney’s and Santorum’s events – most of whom skewed older and more conservative, as does the GOP primary electorate as a whole – revealed that many establishment voters are deeply dismissive of the reasons for Paul’s supporters’ enthusiasm.
Several conservative caucus-goers cast Paul’s backers as misguided young people whose main reason for supporting the Texas congressman is to bring about the legalization of illicit drugs.
“He’s very lenient on legalizing marijuana and drugs,” Al TeSlaa, a soybean, corn and cattle farmer from the small northwestern town of Rock Rapids, said when asked about Paul. “I don’t know what he’s thinking and why people are falling for that; if it’s the young people that are falling for that, that are thinking, ‘Oh, man, legalizing marijuana and all drugs or whatever; oh man, we’re going to have a nice world.’ ”
“I don’t know what the young people are thinking,” added TeSlaa, who over the past week decided to back Santorum.
Cindy Hamann, a 55-year-old housewife from Sioux City who is also backing Santorum, said that if Paul wins Tuesday, it will be due to “a lot of Democrats and a lot of stupid kids.”
“I’m thinking a lot of college kids that want drug legalization, that want all this other kind of stuff – they like that,” Hamann said in an interview as she waited for Santorum to address a crowd at a coffee shop Sunday afternoon. “And they just haven’t lived long enough to be wise. They’re not willing to even listen.”
“I’ll tell you what, they’re pretty much a rabid bunch,” she said.
Even as they were dismissive about the beliefs of Paul’s supporters, many establishment conservatives in Iowa took very seriously the candidate’s non-interventionist view on foreign policy.
Jen Brown, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom from Waukee who remained undecided after hearing Santorum speak Saturday, said that she believes Paul’s views on foreign policy “absolutely” disqualify him as a presidential contender.
“He doesn’t seem to take the threats (of Iran and other countries) seriously,” Brown said of Paul. She added that her brother-in-law is serving in Afghanistan and that she is concerned about the impact a Paul presidency would have on soldiers abroad as well as on U.S. national security.
“I just don’t get the sense from him – I guess he would handle it differently from how I would want it to be handled,” she said.
Greg Moore, a 61-year-old engineer from Sioux City who is leaning toward Romney, also said that Paul’s stance on foreign affairs is a nonstarter.
“I believe his foreign policy needs some tweaking, real big-time tweaking. ... We can’t be isolationists anymore; it just won’t work,” Moore said.
And Tom Cole, a 65-year-old semi-retiree from George, Iowa, said that he likes “some things” that Paul says but that his views on national security and Israel in particular mean that “he as a candidate would probably be the most worrisome for me.”
“When you come out and say something to the effect of, ‘You know, if Israel was in a war, would you as a president support Israel?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Really. Well, there’s where we draw the line,’ ” said Cole, who decided Sunday that he will cast his vote for Santorum.
“In this world ... nobody likes war,” he added. “I’m always concerned about when people say, ‘Oh, you must like war.’ I hate war. But I love freedom more. And freedom costs something.”
Notably, for all the national media attention that has been devoted in recent weeks to the issue of racist and anti-gay newsletters penned in Paul’s name decades ago, none of the likely caucus-goers interviewed over the weekend cited the controversy as among their concerns about Paul’s candidacy.
So, what does establishment conservatives’ stance toward Paul mean for the broader race?
For one thing, it has led some caucus-goers to publicly argue that Paul and his supporters are too far outside the mainstream and thus are not true Republicans – a charge that the Texas congressman and his base dispute, but one that could roil relations between supporters of the various contenders as the nominating process wears on, particularly if Paul remains a force in the race.
“They don’t care about the Republican Party,” Hamann, of Sioux City, said of Paul and his supporters. “They don’t care about conservatism. They want to be able to do what they want to do.”
For another thing, it has led to some consternation among Republicans about the significance of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, with some arguing that a Paul win would erode the Hawkeye State’s clout on the national stage.
“If Ron Paul wins, Iowa will become totally irrelevant,” said Suzan Stewart, a 60-year-old attorney from Sioux City who is undecided but leaning toward Romney in the current race. “I mean, I don’t think anyone looks at him as a serious presidential candidate. ... Ron Paul brings out very different kinds of people. Non-typical Republicans.”
Reah Adamson, a 62-year-old worker’s compensation adjuster from Indianola who is backing Santorum, struck a similar note.
“I’m privately hoping that he doesn’t show well because I think it’ll make Iowa look bad,” she said of Paul.
What’s also apparent is that many Iowa voters who were ambivalent about Paul four years ago have become fiercely opposed to his bid. The reason, many of them say, is that Paul and his positions were little-known in 2008. But there’s a second reason, too: This time, Paul actually stands a chance of winning Iowa.
That would suggest that some of the passionate feelings about him – as well as about who is or isn’t a true supporter of the Republican Party — could die down if Paul’s candidacy falters in the later nominating states.
And, of course, even while many Iowa establishment voters are down on Paul, a handful over the weekend had yet to form a strong opinion about him – and, as The Post’s Karen Tumulty reports, some social conservatives have found Paul’s message appealing.
In an interview after a Santorum event Sunday night, Steve Roesner, a 50-year-old engineering and manufacturing company president from Orange City, said that he was “more just intrigued” by Paul’s rise to second place in Iowa than fearful of or angry toward him. The reason for Paul’s success thus far, he mused, is that “across the country, I think people are tired of politicians.”
“I think people are very tired of leaders that mislead us. ... So when you have somebody that just tells you what they think, there’s a certain level of respect from that,” he said.