LAS VEGAS — Rand Paul’s presidential campaign was doing a lousy job of playing dead this week, when the senator from Kentucky trekked to an office park to cut the ribbon on a new headquarters. And so when he got a question about whether he might quit the race, as some people have urged, he had a sarcastic counterpunch ready to go.
“I’m for the other nine quitting and just coronating me,” Paul said, adding, “We’ll actually have votes, and the votes will determine who the winner is.”
The run-up to Wednesday’s Republican debate has been brutal for Paul and no fun for the other half-dozen candidates mired in low single digits. Yet none of these candidates appear to be looking at the exits — even as some donors suggest that they should. More than a month has passed since Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) quit the race, encouraging “other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates.” The response? Thanks, buddy — but no thanks.
The number of candidates hanging on by fingernails is not unprecedented, but it’s another complication for a Republican Party that wanted to avoid a “circus” primary. Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — combined — have about $7 million in the bank, or barely half as much as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. In their view, that’s plenty.
“The candidates who are really low in the polls don’t have big campaign operations to maintain,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota whose early exit from the 2012 presidential race, which he later regretted as premature, has become a cautionary tale. “Your friends, your family, your cousins — they can kind of keep you going with gas money as college kids hit the trail for you. You don’t need Hilton money. You can get by with Motel 6 money.”
Huckabee’s campaign, like his insurgent 2008 bid, is an exercise in proving that. Other candidates talk openly about grabbing Paul’s “liberty voters” and Huckabee’s social conservatives when their campaigns inevitably crack. But last week, before an event at Cherokee Avenue Baptist Church in Gaffney, S.C., Huckabee fielded questions about his long-term plans by saying he had put down stakes in that state and Iowa.
“In both states we’re heavily invested and truly believe that it’s critical for us to put in serious ground operations,” he said. “If you don’t win early states, you’re not going to be the nominee. I don’t care what the polls are right now — winning early states is all about getting organized, getting people to those caucuses and primaries.”
Every candidate who barely qualified for Wednesday’s debate has a version of this argument. Host CNBC required that candidates average at least 3 percent in selected polls to make it into prime time. Paul, Christie, Huckabee and Kasich did only narrowly.
In Las Vegas, Paul insisted that polls showing him lagging in the Nevada caucuses were “not real polls of who’s going to vote” but “polls of the undecided.” The Kasich and Christie campaigns are buoyed by polls that show New Hampshire primary voters viewing them more favorably as they grind their way through pancake breakfasts and chamber of commerce dinners.
And to all of the stragglers, the first tier of the race is an October apple tree ready to drop its fruit. Jeb Bush has grown weaker since the early fundraising hauls that were intended to scare competitors out of the race. His very public triage and staff salary cuts cheered even Rick Santorum, exiled to the “undercard” debates but bragging in a donor e-mail this week that “while some campaigns have received headlines for laying off staff, we just hired five new members of our team.”
Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the celebrity candidates who have dominated the race since summer, are viewed by the underdogs as flashy and flawed. Kasich has spent the days before the debate mocking Trump for taking credit for some Ohio factory jobs. Kasich adviser John Weaver tweeted that Trump was like “the melding of Richie Rich and Walter Mitty.”
Weaver sees the potential to convert Trump supporters. “They’re frustrated at government not working, and they have every reason to be frustrated,” he said. “We’re ahead of schedule. We have 50 percent positive. Bush has a 50 negative. [Sen. Marco] Rubio has no organization in [New Hampshire]. We’re adding legislators.
“There are some campaigns that are clearly having serious financial issues, and one of those is Bush’s.”
The persistence of Carson and Trump works to the stragglers’ benefit, too, as proof that the political class has no idea what is happening in 2016.
“Why would I be so concerned about what the pundits are saying right now if they have been so 100 percent, totally, absolutely wrong about everything up to now?” Huckabee asked in Gaffney.
Pawlenty understood that optimism and where it came from. “That’s like hanging around the basketball rim waiting for a rebound,” he said. “Sometimes, it does happen. If you’re a candidate who’s already put two years of your life into this, you could do worse than try.”
The wait for a rebound would not be lonely. Santorum and the other candidates in the undercard debate — including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — have regularly publicized their quixotic swings through the early-voting states despite polling at less than 1 percent in national surveys.
And the straggling candidates’ supporters are just as frustrated by the polls — and by what 2016 has become. In Las Vegas, Paul’s supporters bemoaned how coverage of Trump has smothered everyone else in the race. Paul, they said, needs to stay in until he has a chance to be heard again.
“With so many people still in the fray, it feels like you have to hang in long enough to let the others fall to the side,” said Paul backer Vern Brooks, 40, a Second Amendment activist whose belt buckle was a fully functional .22-caliber pistol. “When I sit down and talk to people and we go over what they know and what they don’t know, it’s very easy to spread the message. There’s no fundraising problem with this campaign. It’s about getting over the shouting from Trump.”
Mila Farrell, 50, volunteered for all three of former Texas congressman Ron Paul’s campaigns, and she drove 6
DelReal reported from South Carolina.