Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) speaks at Bethel University on Saturday in Arden… (Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated…)
Reporting from Pahrump, Nev. — Ron Paul is warming up the crowd as he heads into what could be the most important stretch of his political life.
The audience is raucous, packing heat and aching to cheer, when he zeros in on the year he says America went down the tubes. It is the centerpiece of his run for the White House, a surefire Ron Paul crowd pleaser.
He rails against 1913, when the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve were born, ushering in what he derides as "the age of big government." The crowd goes crazy.
This is the mystery of Ron Paul, or one of them, anyway: how a 76-year-old Texas congressman who bears a slight resemblance to Mr. Magoo and sounds like he's running against Woodrow Wilson can draw some of the biggest, youngest and most ardent crowds of campaign 2012 — supporters who are unwavering and largely nontransferable.
The other Republican contenders are "trying to out-right-wing each other and out-Christian each other, and then you have Ron Paul," marveled John Straayer, professor of political science at Colorado State University. "He doesn't talk about that. It's liberty, liberty, liberty. That rings a bell with these kids" along with many others.
And, perhaps, the bigger mystery? How a strategy that ignores delegate-rich prizes (think Florida) in favor of caucus states (Nevada, last Saturday; Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday; Maine, ending Saturday) could possibly garner Paul the Republican nomination for president. So far, second place is his best showing, although he has more delegates than Rick Santorum. Not that that's saying much.
The question dogs him at every turn — at a Las Vegas Strip news conference on the battered economy three hopeful days before Nevada's voting, in broadcast interviews Saturday and Sunday as he lost big in the Silver State. Sometimes the queries are delicate, other times not so much.
"At some point don't you have to win a contest?" he was asked during a news conference on his 55th wedding anniversary, before he presented his wife, Carol, with a bouquet of roses. Supporters outnumbered reporters 20 to 1 at the event. The flowers got a standing ovation. The question did not.
Paul finished third in Nevada, just behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but seriously lagging behind winner Mitt Romney, the erstwhile governor of Massachusetts. Although he won the youth vote here — just as he did in Iowa and New Hampshire — it marks a serious disappointment for the former Air Force flight surgeon, who is counting on a sprawling grass-roots network in states that hold party caucuses instead of primaries.
In 2008, he came in second behind Romney in Nevada — albeit a distant second.
"The votes aren't all counted yet, and there seems to be a bit of chaos out there, even though it was a small caucus vote," Paul told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week." "There was a lot of confusion. So yes, if you go from second to third, there would be disappointment, but also on the positive side, we will get a bloc of votes. We will still get some delegates."
Paul stopped short of saying that he had no hope of capturing the nomination. But for the first time in the 2012 campaign, the inveterate optimist was sounding shaky.
"The first thing you want to achieve is get as many votes as you can and get as many delegates and set your target high," he said. "And, of course, you set it for victory. But you have to live within the real world."
So far, though, Paul has managed to operate outside of everyday political physics. He is long-winded, fond of 135-word sentences with a heavy emphasis on Austrian economics. He is blunt, telling a young questioner at a Hispanics in Politics meeting that he flat-out cannot support proposed legislation that would give a citizenship path to minors who were brought to this country illegally.
"I can't endorse the Dream Act, because there's a lot of money involved," Paul said, although he went on to describe a more nuanced position on immigration than his competitors'.
"As one who believes in individual liberty and American spirit and the American dream, the one thing that I have resisted and condemned as not the American way [is] I just do not believe that barbed-wire fences and guns on our border will solve any of our problems," he told the Las Vegas Latino group to loud applause. "I think we need more resources to handle our immigration services because they're lousy."
Paul's plans to bring American troops home from far-flung wars won over Heather Catlett, age 12, whose brother is 18 and just registered with the Selective Service System to make himself available for any future draft. Her delighted squeal cut through the din at American Shooters, the site of a candidate meet-and-greet with Gun Owners for Ron Paul.
"I got his autograph, and I shook his hand, and I'm never going to wash this hand again," Catlett said, breathless and beaming. "This is the best moment of my life. He's my hero."