On Monday, Rep. Ron Paul made clear that the last act of his presidential bid would be as unorthodox as all the rest of it.
Paul, the Texas congressman and perennial GOP long shot, said he would stop spending money in the 11 states with upcoming party primaries.
But, Paul said, ending his campaigning was not the same as ending his campaign.
Instead, Paul said he would continue seeking delegates to the GOP convention — just not at the ballot box. He would seek them at state-level party conventions, where his dedicated fans could take over and elect their own.
“We will continue to take leadership positions, win delegates, and carry a strong message to the Republican National Convention that Liberty is the way of the future,” Paul wrote in a message to supporters.
Paul said that continuing to run in primary states “would take many tens of millions of dollars we simply do not have.”
This announcement does not change the plot of the GOP race: Mitt Romney is the presumed nominee. Paul isn’t, and wasn’t, and won’t be.
But Paul’s decision does reveal something about him, and his struggles to reach a broader electorate.
In this race, Paul has cast himself as a maverick outsider — more in touch with the average voter than with party bosses. But he has actually run behind other candidates in mass votes: out of 39 state primaries and caucuses, Paul won zero.
Instead, this outsider actually excels most in the party’s inside game: using his enthusiastic fan base to master the GOP’s boring internal processes.
With Monday’s announcement, Paul gave up trying to be a mass-appeal candidate and poured his efforts into inter-party maneuvering.
“He just stated a fact: that we’re not competing in the primaries. Which lowers the expectation for how well he does in those primaries,” said Doug Wead, a historian and senior adviser to Paul’s campaign.
Now, Wead said, “his delegate strategy is working. So there’s no reason to get bogged down in a huge money-sucking operation to try to win primaries.”
Paul has campaigned for limiting U.S. military involvement abroad and for sharply cutting government spending and regulation. Paradoxically, some of his biggest wins of this campaign have come after he had effectively lost — after Romney appeared to have the nomination sewn up.
Since then, Paul’s supporters in Maine, Nevada, Iowa and elsewhere have flooded state conventions and won elections as national delegates. In some cases, they are still “bound” to vote for Romney as the nominee at the convention in Tampa. But in others, they are free to vote for Paul.
Still, Romney’s lead is huge: He has an estimated 973 delegates, to Paul’s 104. The next two primaries will be held Tuesday in Oregon and Nebraska.
On Monday, it was unclear how, exactly, Paul’s decision would change his efforts in states with upcoming votes. In Arkansas, Paul’s state campaign director said she had effectively given up on the May 22 primary, long before Paul did it officially.
“We pretty much know how the primary’s going to go,” said Monica Serrano. She said the campaign has shifted its focus to the upcoming Arkansas GOP convention, where it hopes to elect more Paul supporters as delegates.
In California, where the primary will be held June 5, there was an opposite reaction. Robert Vaughn, the leader of Paul’s effort in the southern part of the state, said they were campaigning vigorously — he estimated 2,000 people participated in phone banks, door-knocking or other campaigning every day in Los Angeles.
And, Vaughn said, all that would continue.
He said Paul’s campaign had paid for the campaign office and its phones. That might stop. But Vaughn said he thought workers would continue to pay for those things out of their own pockets.
“We’re not suspending our campaign, because it’s always been a grass-roots campaign. We just have to redouble our efforts making sure people are not discouraged,” Vaughn said.
Was Vaughn himself troubled by the news? “I’m not disappointed. It just means I have to work harder,” he said.
Several of Paul’s state directors said they had only learned of the decision Monday and were still struggling to understand its broader meaning.
“We’re in it to win it,” said Chris Stearns, Paul’s Virginia state director, repeating the campaign’s longtime mantra. But, a reporter asked, was that really true after Monday?
“I don’t know,” Stearns conceded. “I’m going to have to look into this.”
Indeed, the goal of Paul’s strategy no longer appears to be the 2012 nomination itself. Instead, it is to have a show of his strength at the GOP convention and to spread his supporters through the party’s internal leadership.
That could pay off this year, if Paul could influence the crafting of the party platform in Tampa. Or it could pay off later, for Paul’s son and political heir, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
“This campaign is also about more than just the 2012 election,” Ron Paul told supporters Monday. “It is about the campaign for liberty, which has taken a tremendous leap forward in this election and will continue to grow stronger in the future until we finally win.”
Staff writers Aaron Blake and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.