The rise of Ron Paul to a national figure is among the unlikeliest of political story lines. But it’s beyond debate at this point that the man his supporters refer to adoringly as “Dr. Paul” has transformed himself into a force to be reckoned with in the Republican presidential race.
This is Paul’s third White House contest. He ran unsuccessfully in 1988 as a libertarian. And the Texas congressman has learned from his 2008 bid, in which he raised a surprising amount of money — primarily online — but ultimately couldn’t translate that into a single primary or caucus win.
Paul has broadened his relatively insular campaign team since the 2008 race, adding several mainstream consultants who helped guide his son Rand to victory in a U.S. Senate race in Kentucky in 2010. He is far better organized — particularly in Iowa — than he was three years ago, and independent polling in the Hawkeye State suggests that he is running neck and neck with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for second place. (Former House speaker Newt Gingrich is the Iowa favorite right now.) Unaligned Republican strategists in the state say the strength of Paul’s organization virtually ensures that he will do even better than the polls are indicating.
What Paul hasn’t changed, however, are his deeply held beliefs on matters domestic and foreign. And that is both good and bad. His longtime push to shrink the government — he has proposed eliminating five agencies — is a perfect fit for a Republican electorate ready to take a meat cleaver to the federal bureaucracy. But his insistence that U.S. troops fighting abroad need to come home is a far less popular position among the GOP base. His suggestion that the nation bears some level of culpability for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, draws hisses of outrage from most Republicans.
Paul has expanded his appeal heading into 2012. But his support remains deeper than it is wide, and he doesn’t seem to have much interest in hedging or modifying his positions to win the support of a broader swath of the Republican electorate.
Paul’s unwillingness to sway with the political winds is what makes his supporters so devoted to him. It’s also what prevents him from being someone with a genuine chance at winning the GOP nod.