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Can Ron Paul translate grassroots passion into widespread popularity?

May 13, 2011|By James Oliphant

Ron Paul believes more voters than ever are aligned with his conservative-libertarian worldview. Now he has to prove it.

Four years ago, when the Texas congressman ran for president, the "tea party" movement didn’t exist—and Paul’s shrink-the-government message looked out of step with the giant global footprint left by the George W. Bush administration.

But the Wall Street collapse of September 2008—when Paul was out of the race -- fundamentally changed the way many Americans view their relationship to large institutions, in both the private and public sectors, while stoking suspicions of U.S. fiscal policy. Moreover, years of an extended military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, now coupled with a new U.S. blitz in Libya, has increasing numbers of voters weary of policing the world.

And while Paul’s libertarian message isn’t entirely on all fours with the tea party movement, its success in the 2010 elections, along with the focus the new House GOP leadership has on slashing federal spending, has given his platform the kind of credibility it never had before.

"Our time has come," Paul told a crowd in Exeter, N.H., on Friday.

But Paul, who said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he measures success by winning, will now have to demonstrate he can harness grass-roots energy into large numbers of real, countable votes. His first test will be in the Iowa caucuses early next year, where in 2008 he finished fourth in the field with 10%. Mike Huckabee led the way then with 34 %, followed by Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Then it likely will be on to New Hampshire, where Paul last time garnered 8%, Nevada, where he did well, taking 14% of the vote, and South Carolina, where the libertarian was a non-factor.

Paul enjoyed the most success where you might expect his individualist line to play best, states such as Montana and Idaho. But then it was too late to matter.

That underscores the challenge that Paul faces early on. He enters 2012 with better name recognition and a more resonant message, but he’ll have to navigate two states, Iowa and South Carolina, that tend to favor social conservatives such as Huckabee, and states like New Hampshire and Nevada, where Romney, at least right now, looms as a large favorite.  

Beyond that, the primary calendar remains wildly in flux, but it is worth noting that Paul didn’t do well in Florida, a state that, depending on when the GOP primary is held, could have an outsized influence in the choice of a nominee.

In those early states, Paul could still play spoiler, however. Who could he hurt the most? Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been most ardently chasing tea party votes in Iowa and South Carolina. In Nevada, and especially New Hampshire, Paul’s fiscal-mindedness could appeal to some voters not attracted to Romney (This is where someone like a Gov. Mitch Daniels could also come into play.)

Paul has already begun organizing for the Iowa straw poll—and one thing he’s proved is his ability to dominate a small-scale vote of partisans. (He does it annually at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.) But that is no guarantee of success. In 2007, the poll was won by Romney, who ultimately lost the state to Huckabee. And Paul received 9% of the vote.

In fact, that poll has been won in the past by George H.W. Bush (when he was running against Ronald Reagan), Pat Robertson and Phil Gramm (who tied with Bob Dole).

One clear asset: Paul has proved himself to be a prolific fundraiser. He raised $1 million in one day in a money push pegged to the GOP candidates’ debate in Greenville, S.C.. last week.

“We win elections when people said we never could win elections,” Paul said Friday on ABC. “Our troops, our supporters, the grass roots, are enthusiastic, more so than that they ever were. I was impressed before. I’m super-impressed now with the enthusiasm we’re getting.”


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