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Ron Paul is for real in Iowa. Seriously.

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Texas Rep. Ron Paul, long dismissed by the GOP establishment as a fringe candidate, has broadened his electoral appeal and emerged as a major player in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, according to several recent polls and conversations with a handful of longtime Hawkeye political operatives.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) addresses the Congressional Health Care Caucus "Thought Leaders Series" November 16, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“He has certainly broadened his coalition from the ‘rage against the machine’ types that primarily comprised his supporters in 2008,” said one senior Iowa Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about Paul’s prospects. “The expanded coalition includes more traditional activists — as a number of GOP county chairs have endorsed his campaign, as have a handful of legislators.”

Two recent polls confirm Paul’s momentum in the state.

In a Bloomberg News survey — conducted by renowned Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer — Paul was in a four-way statistical tie for first along with businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Cain had 20 percent to 19 percent for Paul, 18 percent for Romney and 17 percent for Gingrich.)

And, in a new Iowa State/Gazette/KCRG survey, Paul took 20 percent — behind only Cain at 25 percent.

(For more on Paul’s surprising poll strength in Iowa, make sure to check out the Post’s “Behind the Numbers” polling blog.)

So, there is broad — if not unanimous — agreement that Paul has momentum in Iowa. But, why?

The most obvious reason is that Paul has been on television in the state since July and has spent more than $1.35 million on ads. (For months, Paul had the airwaves to himself although Texas Gov. Rick Perry is now on television in Iowa as well.)

Paul is using the relatively uncluttered airwaves to tell a story of himself as a consistent champion of fiscal responsibility in a field of candidates that have not always hewed so closely to that mantra.

One ad attacks the inconsistencies of Cain, Romney and Perry on fiscal matters — TARP, economic stimulus — before cutting to Paul; “I’ve been talking about these problems for a long long time...now we’re bankrupt and we have to decide which way we’re going to go,” he says.

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And, it’s not just Paul’s television ads that have blanketed the state. Sixty seven percent of those tested in the Bloomberg poll said they had been contacted by the Paul campaign via email, direct mail, telephone or someone coming directly to their door over the last year — the highest percentage for any candidate. (Just 47 percent said the same of Perry, 46 percent of Romney and 41 percent of Cain.)

“We have a strong ground game in the state that is reaching out at a faster pace than any other campaign,” argued Trygve Olson, a Paul adviser.

The other major factor that appears to be working in Paul’s favor is the lack of a clear social conservative candidate ala former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann appeared to be the natural 2012 heir to the Huckabee slot in Iowa but has collapsed both in the state and nationally since she won the Ames Straw Poll in mid-August. (Don’t forget — because many people do — that Paul came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Bachmann at Ames.)

Perry, too, has faltered badly since he began his campaign. And, while Gingrich and Cain have pockets of support among social conservatives neither have an organization in the state to match Paul’s.

“We are picking up support among social conservatives in Iowa -- particularly ones who believe our country’s fiscal situation is in serious peril,” noted Olson.

There are other, more technical reasons to believe that Paul warrants being taken seriously in the state.

Turnout in the 2012 caucuses is expected to dip below the 119,000 (or so) people who turned out in 2008.

“Turnout will probably be lower than in 2008 because there are not the kind of hyper-developed ground efforts like we saw in 2008, 2000, or 1996,” said Gentry Collins, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “I think that benefits a candidate like Paul because the depth of his appeal will guarantee him a minimum number.”

The composition of the caucus-goers, too, could help Paul whose appeal — much more so than his GOP rivals — expands beyond the typical Republican rank and file.

“[Paul] will benefit more than other candidates from our registration rules as independents, Libertarians [and] Democrats can effectively become Republicans for a night and caucus for Paul,” said one veteran Iowa Republican operative. “Anecdotally, I have encountered more than a few self-described liberals who will caucus for Paul due to his anti-war stance.”

There are still few people — outside of Paul’s direct orbit — who see a clear path to victory for the Texas Republican in Iowa. Paul’s problem in Iowa, as it is almost everywhere, is that his support base is loyal and getting larger but still too small to comprise a winning coalition. (Make sure to read our piece on what Paul has in common with “Friday Night Lights” for more on that particular phenomenon.)

But, Paul is an emerging Iowa force in a race that remains as wide open as at any time in recent memory. That means that Paul’s rivals ignore him at their own peril.

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