The surprising candidacy of Ron Paul

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent December 10, 2011

In a year of flameouts, nonstarters and unfulfilled potential, one Republican presidential candidate is clearly exceeding expectations. His name is Ron Paul.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

He is eccentric and sometimes appears a little cranky, but the septuagenarian candidate has done several things that Mitt Romney can’t claim. He has raised more money in this campaign than in his last (Romney has raised more than Paul but less than he did in 2008). He has enlarged his base of support and has risen in the polls over the course of the year.

Nobody thinks Paul is going to win the Republican nomination. His antiwar, anti-interventionist views on foreign policy put him well out of the Republican mainstream. Some of his libertarian views — on the legalization of drugs, for example — led him into embarrassing statements in an early debate.

But on fiscal and economic issues, the tea-party-infused Republican Party has moved in his direction. His advisers say his views on debt, deficits and the destruction of the dollar are shared by the overwhelming percentage of people who call themselves Republicans. The other candidates have joined him this time around in his attacks on the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke.

The Texas congressman is making himself a force to be reckoned with, particularly in this state. Ask Iowa Republicans which campaigns are well organized for the Jan. 3 caucuses, and there is widespread agreement that Paul may have the best operation going. “If there’s organic organizing activity, probably Ron Paul’s the most perceptible organization like that in the state right now, with new people who haven’t been involved before,” said Matt Strawn, the Iowa Republican chairman.

Paul and his team have worked to become more professional, strategists say. “We’ve taken a movement and built it into a serious campaign,” said Trygve Olson, a senior adviser.

Paul’s operation has benefited from the expertise and experience of people who helped elected Paul’s son Rand to the Senate last year. They made a more concerted effort in last summer’s Iowa straw poll to identify and turn out their supporters. Paul finished a close second to Michele Bachmann. His advisers think they miscalculated the turnout and could have won under smarter assumptions.

Here in Iowa, Paul is tied for second with Romney in a round of recent polls, with both trailing former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Paul has a passionate following and one that is no doubt limited. But he could play the role of spoiler to Romney or Gingrich here or elsewhere.

Four years ago, Paul did better in New Hampshire than he did in Iowa. Strong finishes in the first two states could help Paul strengthen his claim to more serious status among the candidates. South Carolina and Florida will be tough sledding for Paul. But he is working to organize the caucus states that come later in the cycle and could do well in them.

Given his resources and his stubborn determination, he could stay in the race for some time, accumulating delegates that he will try to convert into influence at the Republican National Convention in Tampa next summer.

Paul’s campaign is more than an exercise in self-indulgence. One of Paul’s goals is to use his candidacy to make his ideas as much a part of the Republican mainstream as he can in the hope that the party’s nominee can run on them in the general election. The more delegates he can amass, the larger his potential voice in platform discussions.

Paul hopes that through his efforts this year, he and his campaign will be seen as constructive members of the party. “We have tried to be team players,” Olson said.

Paul’s other goal may be to look to the future, to help prepare the ground for his son the senator to take a leadership role within the party on the issues where they agree most — fiscal and economic.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll of Iowa Republicans, Paul was at 18 percent among the likeliest caucus attendees, tied with Romney and trailing Gingrich, who was at 33 percent. But his supporters appear to be more committed than either Romney’s or Gingrich’s. He may have a lower ceiling in terms of his potential support, but committed followers count for a lot when it comes to getting people out on a cold winter night.

Gingrich is leading among tea party supporters, but Paul is roughly tied with Romney for second among them. Among voters 39 and younger, he is the leader. He leads on the question of which candidate is the most honest, and is a close second to Gingrich on who stands up for what he believes and on who best understands the problems of ordinary people. He ranks third in experience.

Like several of the lower-tier candidates, he ranks poorly on who can defeat President Obama. But that should be expected, given the nature of his candidacy. His is a campaign to make a point, not to be the nominee, and he may be succeeding at that.

Paul is one of the few candidates to spend real money on television ads this year. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a bundle, but Romney and Gingrich have only recently begun to air their ads. One of Paul’s ads goes after Gingrich for serial hypocrisy, a theme of Paul’s comments about his rivals.

There are two reasons he’s taking aim at Gingrich. One is a genuine disagreement and dislike for what Gingrich has done in the past. Another is the political reality that Paul and Gingrich share potential supporters (unlike Paul and Romney). If Paul can peel away some of Gingrich’s supporters, it’s his hope that those voters will become his by caucus night.

Paul is still a decided long shot to win the caucuses, though some Iowa Republicans don’t rule it out. Romney has a bigger list of supporters from 2008 and he has been working them quietly throughout the fall. Gingrich is the hot candidate here, but no one knows whether he will suffer the same fate that befell Perry, Bachmann and Herman Cain — a rapid rise followed by a rapid fall. Paul’s goal is to keep building and hope that no one else breaks out of the pack. That could put him in the thick of a closely bunched finish here next month.

Matthew Dowd, who was senior adviser to former president George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and is now an independent analyst, said Paul has helped his credibility by his consistency on issues.

“He represents a constituency that’s part of the Republican Party,” Dowd said a few hours before Saturday’s debate. “Despite his stands on certain issues, he’s got their support because of his anti-government views. He’s given voice to a big part of the concerns.”

In a campaign of surprises, count Ron Paul as one of them.

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