It’s a cold Thursday night the week before finals, and a light dusting of snow is falling on the Iowa State campus. But inside the school’s student union, more than 1,000 supporters have queued up to catch an early glimpse of Ron Paul. Nearly an hour before the Texas Congressman is scheduled to appear, the line loops around corners and snakes back, full of fans toting placards and wearing Ron Paul buttons and hoodies. Near the front are a quartet of Nebraskans, who carpooled three hours from Omaha to hear Paul speak. “He’s the only one who understands our problems. For the rest of them, it’s like a geography bee — name the country, and they want to fight them,” says Jason Nunn, 28.
“He’s been fighting for my liberty since before I was born,” says Bryan Jacoby, 28.
Says their friend Michael McKenzie: “I came here with the expressed intention to shake the hand of the future President of the United States.”
The crowd shuffles into the cavernous auditorium a half-hour early, filling the seats, hugging the walls and spilling into an anteroom. After a long wait, Paul steps to the podium to address the throng. Paul’s is a stump speech unique in contemporary politics, one that pinballs from the case for more liberty and fewer military entanglements to the wasteful war on drugs, from Frederic Bastiat’s economic theories to the evils of the income tax and the nanny state. “I’m all for raw milk,” he tells the crowd, a point he also made at an earlier stop on Thursday. “I think you should have a choice about whether you want to drink raw milk.” A moment later, he is decrying the ban on hemp cultivation. “You can’t smoke hemp,” he says. “Or you can, but to get high you’d need a cigar as big as a phone pole.”
The 76-year-old Paul has always been dismissed as something of a curio within GOP establishment circles and among many voters, but in an unsettled year he has a legitimate chance to crash the party and capture the Iowa caucuses. He registered 17% in this week’s TIME/CNN/ORC poll, behind just Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, and a jump from the 12% he registered a month earlier. The irony of his climb is that Paul, the most unconventional politician in the field, is making headway by running perhaps the most conventional campaign of any Republican presidential hopeful. Numerous Republican insiders, including Governor Terry Branstad, have cited Paul’s infrastructure as the best in the state. “He has the most extensive organization, the most passionate people,” says Tim Albrecht, Branstad’s spokesman. “It’s impressive that he’s up to 18%. All he needs is maybe another 6% to win the Iowa caucuses. He just needs to grow a little bit.”
Four years ago, Paul’s fan base was brimming with fervor but sloppily organized; this time, his campaign is not just motivated, but meticulously organized. “Ron Paul is definitely an undervalued stock,” concedes an Iowa aide for a rival campaign.
Paul’s staffers won’t divulge specifics of their get-out-the-vote strategy, but their organizational planning was apparent Thursday. After the Texas Congressman’s speech in Ames, Youth for Ron Paul volunteers collected contact information and distributed instructions on how to register for the caucuses. At an earlier stop, where fans packed a public library in the small city of Boone, staffers gathered likely caucus goers after Paul’s lecture to sign up precinct captains and enumerate the logistics of the Jan. 3 caucuses.
“We’re just going to do all the traditional things we’ve been doing,” says Drew Ivers, Paul’s Iowa chairman and a longtime Republican activist. “Mailings, calls, TV ads. We’re going to bring the candidate in more as we get closer to the end…It’s been a good, steady, solid growth [in the polls.] We feel we’ve got the momentum. We’ve got the loyalty. We’ve got the youth. And establishment Republicans are beginning to wake up a bit.”
While Paul’s young army — his campaign pegged the number of supporters in Ames at 1,350 — is a sight to behold, the diverse crowd at the Boone public library was a sign that he is beginning to shed the fringe tag that has dogged him. “There are a lot more middle-aged folks here, and that’s good,” says Brad Kiefer, a construction worker from nearby Ogden who caucused for Paul in 2007. “He’s becoming a little more mainstream.”
That transition has been aided by a few factors. Paul can lay claim to having predicted many of the problems that have beset the U.S. economy, from the mortgage crisis to the ballooning deficit. In a field of pirouetting politicians, he has been a principled voice, regardless of whether you agree with his views. Some of them, particularly his non-interventionist foreign policy, remain unpalatable for plenty of Republicans; he was shunned from a Wednesday confab with a Republican Jewish group in Washington because of his rejection of foreign aid for Israel. (Paul is against all foreign aid, which he says limits the recipient’s liberty.) In Ames, Paul told the crowd that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the prevailing emotion in the government was “glee,” because “now we can go to war with Iraq.” But while his foreign policy may deter some voters, his small-government, anti-tax positions strike a chord with many others.
Can Paul pull an upset? Several Iowa Republicans suggest that all it will take is a snowstorm, since his fervent fan base would brave a blizzard that might deter the less committed. But for Paul to topple Gingrich and Romney, the final hurdle he’ll need to clear is the electability argument. Paul doesn’t look or sound like a traditional President, and in a year when defeating Barack Obama is the GOP’s primary goal, he needs to pitch voters on his ability to knock Obama off. Paul’s campaign has been heralding polls that show him performing well in a prospective general-election match-up, but RealClearPolitics’ average shows Obama with a 7.7-point cushion, on average, over the Texas Congressman. “Ron Paul’s electability status is far, far underrated,” Ivers, his Iowa chairman, says. “I’m not just whistling Dixie. The big story is the unrecognized credibility of Ron Paul’s electability. He can win.”
Corrected, Dec. 12: This story originally misattributed Michael McKenzie’s quote about Congressman Paul to Bryan Jacoby.