NEVADA, Iowa — At the end of a day of back-to-back campaign events in eastern Iowa last month, as an audience of 180 people in a community center ate chili and crackers, Ron Paul suddenly seemed to remember why he was there. After a series of speeches that had veered between obscure Austrian economists and the 1913 U.S. law that established the federal income tax, he finally concluded: “That’s why I’m running for president.” The crowd erupted into applause.
After 35 years in politics and two unsuccessful runs for the top job, Paul is enjoying a surge in support and the most high-profile campaign of his life. Last month, the Texas congressman registered as high as third place in opinion polls, behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Although he was overtaken by businessman Herman Cain in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, he remained in the double digits — compared with 3 percent at this point in his 2008 campaign.
He came in a close second in August’s Iowa straw poll and won this weekend’s straw poll at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of social conservatives.
Paul’s unwavering ideals of small government and free markets, which rendered him a quirky sideshow for decades, have gained traction amid concerns about rising government debt. His longtime opposition to the existence of the Federal Reserve, income tax and foreign aid is now shared by many in his party.
But he must convert the increased support to a broad base if he is to reach the top tier of potential nominees — a goal he set for himself at a recent candidate debate. That won’t be an easy task for the 76-year-old congressman, whose trademark speeches on economic theory and constitutional provisions often befuddle audiences.
“When he goes to the general public and starts speaking about the Austrian school of economics, I’m afraid that some people just stop listening,” said state Rep. Jason Schultz, who heads the local chapter of Farmers for Ron Paul.
The Paul campaign is doing a few things to try to lure supporters. First, it’s trying to increase his exposure by getting him on the trail and on television screens more often. Paul has made 22 trips to Iowa since declaring his candidacy in May, compared with nine such visits by this point in his last bid. His staff has been running television commercials in four early-primary states since July, at a cost of $1.8 million. In 2007, the team had no TV advertising until the end of the year.
Second, the campaign is trying to tap more diverse groups. A television commercial that shows Vietnam veterans backing Paul and refers to his stints as a surgeon in the Air Force and in the Air National Guard started airing at the end of September. Outreach efforts that target groups including farmers and evangelicals are underway.
Paul’s rising profile is affecting the tone of the Republican contest — and perhaps even the party — strategists said.
“He serves as an anchor to the right that will have a Romney or a Perry appealing more to libertarian bases,” said Ron Christie, a GOP strategist who served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and is unaffiliated this year. “They will not want to be outflanked by him.”
Christie noted that Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich have been pushing anti-Federal Reserve stances in recent television debates. Other strategists observe that all the candidates have started peppering their speeches with references to the Constitution. Paul’s years of insistence on small government are widely considered to have paved the way for the emergence of the tea party movement.
Beyond fiscal policy, though, the congressman remains a hard sell among much of the party. His antiwar stance alienates foreign policy hawks. He condemned the Sept. 30 fatal U.S. drone strike in Yemen and insisted that the target, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric, had a constitutional right to a trial.
Some Republicans wryly suggest that Paul’s strong support among young voters stems from his libertarian call to legalize almost all drugs.
His toughest audience is “somebody that’s been in the Republican Party for 30 years and they’re middle-aged and in business and they just sort of don’t like to rock the boat,” Paul said in an interview as he traveled between town hall forums.
On the trail in Iowa, the congressman did at times move his speeches beyond their usual terrain. He stressed his experience in the military. He offered a rare criticism of President Obama on business regulation in an attempt to ground his theories in an everyday way. But such moments were rare.
In any case, Paul’s famously committed fan base is happy with him just as he is. His town hall events were filled with students, middle-class workers, farmers and retirees who had registered as Republicans solely to vote for him. For them, his consistency is key.
“I love the fact that you always know how he’s going to vote” in Congress, said Mona Kilborn, 62, a caregiver for the disabled who attended the chili dinner. “If it’s constitutional, he will vote for; if it’s not, he will vote against.”
This small but solid base allows Paul to outstrip many of his rivals in fundraising. Paul’s campaign announced that he brought in $8 million in the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, against Perry’s $17 million (the other candidates have yet to announce their totals).
Four of Paul’s trademark “moneybombs” — 24-hour online fundraisers — have passed the $1 million mark this year.
Many of his supporters say they are for Paul alone, making it hard to ascertain whether he is peeling away votes from his rivals. “I don’t think I’d vote for any of the other candidates” if he withdrew, said Tony Gotto, a 23-year-old farmer, at a town hall event in Dubuque. “I wasn’t even interested in politics till I heard about Ron Paul.”
Yet the congressman is unperturbed. He is simply happy that after more than three decades, his ideas are being accepted. He is less likely than his younger rivals to run again. He has decided not to seek reelection to the House next year after 12 consecutive terms.
“I am not the average politician who will think in conventional terms” about winning, he said as his car arrived at a chartered plane that would take him to his next campaign stop. “I have a much more significant goal: changing ideas.”