Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is an expert at winning straw polls as the head of what his enthusiastic supporters call the Ron Paul Revolution. But this weekend in Iowa, the revived presidential contender hopes to bring a different element to his long-shot 2012 bid: legitimacy.
In four years, the congressman has moved from fringe presidential candidate, whose libertarian views led some to dismiss him, to prescient prognosticator, who correctly predicted the current economic situation.
Paul came in fifth in the Ames straw poll in 2007, yet as that contest repeats itself on Saturday, his campaign has more money and higher name recognition. His philosophy of cutting spending, balancing the budget and rejecting compromise on shrinking the size of government is a rallying cry for the Republican and tea party faithful.
(To supporters, the reading of the Constitution on the House floor on the first day of the new Congress was a key sign that Paul’s approach to legislation — he reads every bill with an eye toward whether it is constitutional — had made its way to Washington.)
The Iowa contest will be a key measure of whether Paul can turn his loose but fervent support network, which is young and Web-savvy, into an organized voting bloc in Iowa.
The campaign hasn’t set a very high bar for success.
“We would be happy with anything better than last time,” said Gary Howard, the national press secretary for Paul’s campaign. “Last time people didn’t take him seriously, but hopefully people will take him seriously now.”
Yet whether Paul wins it all on Saturday is not necessarily an accurate predictor of the Texas lawmaker’s influence on the 2012 race. How he scores will affect the chances of the other competitors. For instance, if Paul polls better than Michele Bachmann, the emotional favorite who has been gaining momentum among conservatives, the Minnesota congresswoman’s campaign could be damaged. If he does better than Tim Pawlenty, problems with the former Minnesota governor’s campaign would be multiplied. And a victory over Rick Santorum, who has moved his family to Iowa, could help end the former Pennsylvania senator’s presidential bid.
On Wednesday, Paul, 75, kicks off a tour of Iowa with his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is philosophically a carbon copy of his father and whose 2010 victory is further proof that Republicans in Congress have shifted toward Paul.
In Iowa, the Paul campaign has reached out to several important constituents, most notably home-schoolers, who powered former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s strong 2008 showing in the state.
And a recent “Ready, Ames, Fire” fundraiser, or “moneybomb” in Paul parlance, brought half a million dollars to the Paul campaign, in addition to the $4.5 million that the campaign raised in the last quarter.
Paul has a die-hard group of supporters, who often take a do-it-yourself approach to campaigning, with very little coordination with the campaign’s high command.
“You might see 60 different fliers for him, because his supporters go off and make their own,” said Ryan Rhoads, head of an Iowa tea party group. “It’s a blessing and a curse, because it’s something that is tough to control, but at least he has a hard-core support network.”
And supporters from around the country are pitching in to subsidize the $30 ticket price for the straw poll — for $10, the campaign will bus supporters from anywhere in Iowa and provide lunch.
“He is honest, and he is consistent; he doesn’t pander and play political games; he doesn’t say one thing to one group and something else to another group,” said Britton Sprouse, 24, who is spending his summer in Iowa to aid Paul’s straw poll effort. “He is very smart on economics, he understands the Federal Reserve, and for all those reasons, he is the right guy.”
For $31,000, Paul scored the best tent spot for the straw poll, a location that GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who is skipping Ames this year, had in 2007. And he has flooded the Iowa airwaves with $100,000 worth of ads highlighting his experience, which supporters argue sets him apart from the others in the field.
“One candidate has always been true. Ron Paul. Cut spending. Balance the budget. No deals,” says the ad.
Paul supporters, who call him Dr. Paul, dismiss Bachmann and Pawlenty as pretenders who have arrived at a libertarian philosophy of a smaller federal government long after Paul paved the way.
“Michele Bachmann has a 41 / 2-year-old record; Ron Paul has been involved over a 30-year period,” said Drew Ivers, Paul’s Iowa campaign chair. “It’s ditto for the others. Pawlenty is talking very conservative, but what about the $6 billion debt in Minnesota?”
And while Paul’s supporters shy away from using the word “establishment,” they said that his campaign has made some inroads.
“We had a huge libertarian base, but we have many more traditional supporters, and people in tune with being a part of the GOP,” Ivers said.
Over the next few days, Paul will take his message to Iowa voters in hotels and at state fairs. On Thursday, he will be onstage for a GOP debate, a crucial moment that could sway the straw poll.
“He has to step up in the debate,” Rhoads said. “He can’t let the questions pigeonhole him. Sometimes he gets philosophical and goes off on a tangent. Debates aren’t made for that.”