Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) listens to questions at a town hall meeting in Boone,… (Jim Young, Reuters )
Reporting from Ames, Iowa — For months, GOP candidates have bounced up and down in the polls in confounding gyrations. All the while, Ron Paul has plodded along, largely ignored outside the state but steadily holding his own.
As the January caucuses near, Paul has been drawing big crowds, far larger than those of his opponents, often on college campuses where his backers are drawn by his quirky and caustic assaults on the Federal Reserve and American intervention abroad.
The unparalleled intensity of his followers — and a smarter, better-funded and more sophisticated strategy than the one seen in his last bid four years ago — means Paul is likely to finish among the top three in the Iowa caucuses.
"Ron Paul is very real here. He's probably the most aggressive traditional campaign to date; we've seen multiple mailers, multiple television ads and multiple visits. He's really stepped up his effort and I think it's paying off," said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad. (Both men are neutral in the race.)
Paul has consistently polled in second or third place in Iowa. And those surveys may actually underestimate his support because they tend to be of Republican voters, whereas Paul also attracts independents and Democrats, who can caucus for him if they change their party registration.
It's a heady change from four years ago, when the candidate entered the race with zero name recognition and little money, finishing fifth in the caucuses with less than 10% of the vote.
"I came here four years ago; believe me, it's different today," Paul said at a rally at Iowa State University in Ames.
Virtually no political expert in either party believes Paul has a chance of taking the GOP nomination. He doesn't have the same level of support in the next voting contests, such as New Hampshire, site of the first primary, one week after the caucuses. His foreign policy positions will pose problems for him in the states that follow; Florida Republicans are not likely to embrace his calls for normalizing relations with Cuba. And at 76 he is the oldest candidate in the field.
But the Iowa results will winnow that field, and Paul's standing on Jan. 3 is likely to deny a solid finish to someone with better prospects for winning the nomination.
Paul poses a particular threat to Newt Gingrich, who has surged in the polls but is late in building a campaign organization that can get his supporters to the caucuses. If Paul can blunt the former House speaker's rise, it would benefit former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, presuming he holds his lead in New Hampshire.
"Gingrich is now leading all the polls; he really needs to perform well here," Albrecht said. "If Ron Paul can prevent that, a win for Paul is a win for Romney."
Paul's campaign team disputes the notion that he is weak elsewhere. Drew Ivers, Paul's Iowa chair and his campaign manager four years ago, said the concerns of voters have aligned with the economic and monetary policies that have long been Paul's hallmark. Additionally, he is able to raise money this year, Ivers said.
"This campaign is much different, much different," he said. "We were squeaking by with money. This time we have enough money, we can do ads, we can spend on organizing."
Getting people to caucus, a lengthy and laborious process, is challenging for all candidates and requires an army of volunteers to prod people to nearly 2,000 sites. The campaign declined to reveal details of its organization, but political observers say it is powerful.
"Ron Paul has got the best organization in the state," said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist.
That was evident at the Ames straw poll in August, when Paul came within 152 votes of first place.
Paul's appeal among followers is evident at his campaign events. During a recent day, each of the Texas congressman's events was packed beyond capacity, with people seated on the floor and lining the walls.
On a snowy, bitingly cold night in the middle of finals week, well over 1,000 people, mostly young, jammed into the Iowa State student union for Paul's appearance. So many people showed up that the organizers had to open two side rooms.
The rally attendees raucously greeted Paul, old enough to be their grandfather, and shouted slogans such as "Down with the Fed!" and "End the Fed!"
"I understand this is a busy week. Some of you are involved with studying, so this was a chance not to have to study for a couple hours, right?" Paul said. "This is lovely to see so many interested in, to me, a very important subject."
Paul took off on his standard criticism of past administrations, centering on what he says is a persistent overreach by presidents and legislators of both parties.
"There's something seriously wrong with our country and I don't believe it's a flaw in the Constitution. I think one of our problems is we haven't followed our Constitution!" Paul said, as the crowd roared.
The crowd cheered most heartily when he called for an end to all foreign engagements, saying they were unconstitutional wars, and repeated his opposition to the war on drugs.
"It all makes sense," said Justin Gleason, 23, a senior marketing major. "We should not be in all these foreign wars unless there's an imminent threat to the United States."
Gleason didn't caucus four years ago but pledged to support Paul in January.
Paul is often knocked as popular only among the young, but he is attracting disaffected voters of all ages. Sue Swarts, 65, consistently votes for Republicans but has never caucused before. She said after hearing Paul speak at the Boone town library that she plans to in January, for Paul.
"His message is excellent," said the retired post office worker.