Rep. Ron Paul’s announcement Tuesday that he has formed a presidential exploratory committee promises to liven the 2012 Republican nominating process by attracting the outspoken libertarian’s core of devoted and often-boisterous followers.
The announcement in Iowa left open a critical question: whether a Paul campaign would end any differently from his previous two runs for president, the first in 1988 and the second two decades later. In 2008, Paul (R-Tex.) drew an intense following with his small-government drumbeat — and he raised a surprising amount of money, including a series of one-day “money bombs” that drew in millions of dollars. But in a succession of state primaries, Paul drew an average of less than 10 percent of the vote before dropping out in June.
Paul supporters said they are expecting a better performance from the 15-term congressman this time not only because of the attention and money he attracted in 2008 but also because of the rise, since then, of the tea party movement. Like Paul, the tea party movement focuses on limiting the size of government and more narrowly interpreting the Constitution.
Since 2008, Paul, 75, has continued to attract media attention and support; he won straw polls this year and last at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Even if Paul, an obstetrician, doesn’t win the nomination, supporters said, his presence at debates and on the campaign trail — and that of his followers — will help shape the conversation.
“Ron Paul framed the debate and brought the debate into this realm,” said Trevor Lyman, a supporter who coordinates Paul’s money bombs. “That’s his role. Without him, the conversation wouldn’t even take place.”
Others took a more skeptical view, arguing that Paul didn’t actually push other candidates to change their positions in 2008.
“He has a small band of committed supporters who were there last time and will be there this time,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who recently signed on to work for Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China who is considering a presidential run. “But his foreign policy was essentially an isolationist message, which had no impact on the position of any other contenders. I don’t recall that he had any effect on the fiscal policy of any of the other contenders. He just has an appeal that is very intense but very narrow.”
Ayres also suggested that there will be steep competition for support within the tea party movement from other potential GOP presidential contenders, notably Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Certainly, there is some overlap between Paul’s views and the fiscally conservative tenets and Constitution-quoting rhetoric of the tea party. But there is less overlap when it comes to Paul’s foreign policy; the tea party generally has focused on limiting government at the domestic level, but not in national security or defense, where Paul’s proposals to drastically reduce spending and revamp U.S. policy have not found resonance with a broader swath of voters.
Similarly, Paul’s advocacy to withdraw from the United Nations, abolish the Federal Reserve and eliminate the federal income tax have left him out of touch with mainstream Republicans.
“Most of our supporters will be interested and glad that he is forming an exploratory committee if for no other reason than he helps keep the focus on the constitutional issues that we care about,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. “But his message translating into votes will be a challenge for his campaign. There are people who follow Ron Paul within the movement and then there are other people within the movement who really don’t know Ron Paul at all. Even though they’re fairly active and engaged, they just aren’t plugged into him.”