Can Ron Paul Win the Anti-Romney Primary?

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Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul prepares to address the Health Caucus Thought Leaders Series in Washington, Nov. 16, 2011.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

If the race for the Republican nomination were a children’s story – and let’s face it, Little Miss Moffett, Jack Horner and Dumbo sometimes come to mind – then Ron Paul would surely be the tortoise. While the hares have taken turns racing ahead, Paul has gained slowly and steadily in the polls. The Texas congressman is now running third in New Hampshire and second in Iowa in polls taken before Herman Cain’s latest meltdown. In a year when most candidates are ignoring old-fashioned retail campaigning, Paul has large grassroots organizations in both states. And he had plenty of money with which to play.

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“Steady growth is what we panned on and it’s what we have, so it’s incremental, it’s steady,” Paul told reporters after a speech to the Portsmouth Rotary Club on Thursday. “Because one of the things that we know, and I think that the polls show, once we gain supporters they’re very solid, they don’t go back and forth. So if we continue to do what we’re doing and spend even more money between now and the election I think we’re going to come out very close to the top.”

Paul insiders say they believe they have a shot at winning both states. In Iowa they have hard pledges from 20,000 voters. Given that there are usually between 90,000 and 115,000 GOP caucus-goers, 20,000 pledges in an eight-way field is nothing to sneeze at. They also say his internal polls have him at 18% in New Hampshire – easily placing second behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

“I think that the field is undecided right now and up for grabs,” says Ted Alex, 54, who owns a property management company, at the Paul event in Portsmouth. Alex is undecided and could well vote for Paul in the primary. “Someone like Paul could really make some headway.” If this trend holds – and it assumes that former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s latest rise will fall like the rest – then Paul could place second in both states, all but knocking off all other anti-Romney candidates.

Just in case Gingrich doesn’t fail on his own, Paul launched a harsh anti-Gingrich web ad on Wednesday. “It’s nothing personal,” Paul told reporters in Portsmouth Thursday morning. “But philosophically he’s all over the map. And I do resent a bit the amount of money that he got from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because to me that’s essentially tax payers’ money.”

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Certainly, of the three times Paul has run for President, the climate today is the friendliest to his platform. Paul’s fiscal conservatism and libertarian bent make him appealing to the Tea Party and Occupy crowds. And in his stump speeches, he praises both movements for “reflecting the outrage we all feel.” And the 12-term congressman casts himself as the natural heir to that populism. “One of the things I think is neat about New Hampshire is that you have more registered independents than Republicans or Democrats,” Paul told a crowd at a house party in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thursday. “It takes independent thinking to challenge what’s going on in Washington.”

Over the past year, Paul — who was speaking at Tea Party rallies before the Tea Party existed — has become godfather to the Tea Party-infused freshman class. Whenever one of them doesn’t know where to come down on a particular bill, it’s Paul, not the leadership, they go to on the floor to ask which way they should vote. When asked how, as President, Paul would get around Congress to enact some of his more radical ideas, like doing away with the Department of Education, Paul replies that his election would send a message. “Everyone in Washington would know that that’s where the electorate is, that that’s what the people want,” he says.

The odds of Paul being elected President remain low. But surprisingly strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and enough money to organize outside of the early states mean Paul could stay in the race through the spring and garner an eyebrow-raising number of delegates. And that in itself would send a clear message to Romney, or whomever the nominee is: this is where much of the Republican base is, leave it at your own peril. An ideological win for the slow and steady tortoise.

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