In a muddled field, Paul could win the Iowa caucuses. While other candidates have been hesitant to commit to the state or have had trouble sustaining their initial bursts of support, Paul has been methodically building an organization and a growing corps of followers.
Over the past week, he has spent more than $600,000 on attack ads that are cutting into support for a fellow front-runner, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). And Paul has built an organization that will allow him to remain in the race well beyond the early-voting states and amass convention delegates.
Perhaps most fearsome to Republican leaders is Paul’s refusal to rule out a third-party presidential bid that would steal votes from the Republican nominee and make President Obama’s path to reelection considerably easier.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, for instance, indicates that Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would be locked in a dead heat in a one-on-one contest. But in a three-way race with Paul, Obama would hold a wide advantage. The survey also suggests that Paul on his own would pose at least as much danger to Obama as Gingrich would.
“The reality is Ron Paul is poised to become a major figure in the Republican Party if his momentum continues and he’s able to win in Iowa,” said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed the campaign of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party’s 2008 nominee. “The open question is: How much durability does he have over the balance of the race?”
Paul’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The congressman’s libertarian views and longtime opposition to increased federal spending and government interference have inspired a committed following of activist supporters who turn out for rallies and organize online.
Until now, though, rival candidates and Republican leaders have largely ignored Paul, considering him more of a political eccentric than a viable opinion leader, much less a credible presidential candidate.
Many Republicans have long been uneasy with Paul’s views on foreign policy, which fall far outside the GOP mainstream. He opposed the Iraq war, wants to pull the military out of Afghanistan and says conservatives are overstating the nuclear threat from Iran to start a war in the region. He opposes foreign aid, including support for Israel — a point of particular concern within the party — and has said that U.S. actions overseas helped spur the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After his 2008 presidential bid, Paul wasn’t even granted a spot at the Republican National Convention. He held his own shadow gathering instead.