In this presidential cycle, as in the last, there is no question which Republican candidate has the most ardent supporters. It is Ron Paul, the 76-year-old Texas congressman whose brand of libertarianism often puts him at odds with all his rivals. But with less than seven weeks to go there are signs that Paul could surprise people in the nation’s first primary.
Ron Paul supporters probably wouldn’t like this observation: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is sitting pretty in New Hampshire. Very pretty.
But given that, this assessment isn’t too shabby.
“I could very well see Ron Paul coming in second place.”
Long-time pollster Andy Smith runs the UNH Survey Center. His numbers this week show Paul in third with 12%, somewhat higher than a month ago. In the context of a Republican field that has seen a parade of alternatives to Romney rise and fall, Smith says Paul has some key advantages.
“He’s got more money than other candidates, and he seems to have a more committed young following. So those young voters, always important on the campaign trail because they essentially will work for free and they’re very enthusiastic about Paul.”
Paul was firmly in the sweet spot of his campaign this week at Keene State College. More than 300 people packed the hall, many of them students. Paul launched with his signature call to return the dollar to the gold standard. When he talked of his plan to bring home American troops from across the globe, it drew a big response.
“I don’t believe we have the right or the authority to tell other people what to do. I believe we should be dealing with our own problems at home and improving our own conditions here.”//applause
Paul’s base of young voters and hard core libertarians has made him easy to pigeon hole and with some historic justification. In the 2008 primary, he drew less than 8% of the vote.
Things could be significantly different this time. Paul is reaching into new corners of the electorate.
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Paul’s next stop after Keene was a house party in the affluent town of Windham on the border with Massachusetts. This was no humble living room affair. The host hired bar tenders to staff not one but two built-in bars. The appetizer table offered rabbit pate.
Steve Airocci teaches social studies. Four years ago, he voted for Obama and had no interest in Ron Paul. Now, he does. Behind the shift, a sense that the established order has driven the country down to rock bottom.
“That’s the feeling that I have now that I’ve not had before now. That there’s nowhere else to go. We have to do something drastic. We have to make some significant changes in government and primarily on the financial side.”
Airocci is a registered Independent. Paul does well among independents but some registered Republicans are also giving him a closer look. Another Windham resident, Joe Montenaro, voted for Romney in 2008. He’s a doctor with an OB-GYN practice and he sees Paul as level headed and reliable.
“The other ones are going for the shock value and all that. He seems to be more of a steady state and that’s what I’m looking for. Someone who is going to do what they say when they get in.”
Many voters who like Paul say they believe he is the only candidate who truly means what he says.
Former state Republican Party chairman, Fergus Cullen, says one reason voters might have good feelings toward Paul is, thanks to his peculiar place in the Republican line up, he has side stepped the normal rough and tumble of campaigns.
“He’s unlikely to get attacked by the other opponents because no one sees it in their interest to go after him. So they’re going to continue to just hear the positive and not the negative.”
Cullen says events have made Paul’s ideas of curtailing the country’s foreign entanglements and rethinking government more plausible. But his gut sense of Republican primary voters is they are not ready to go as far as Paul would like.
That’s probably true in the race for first place. But in the race for second, Paul might show some muscle in the home stretch.