Why Ron Paul Is Gunning for Rick Santorum

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Meredith, N.H.

Ron Paul set his sights on Rick Santorum the moment it became clear that the Texas Congressman would take bronze to Santorum’s silver in the Iowa caucuses. “We got one of the three tickets out of Iowa,” a campaign chair told a crowd waiting to hear Paul speak on Jan. 3. “And there are only two candidates in this race that have the resources to compete as we head into New Hampshire.” In case the audience didn’t get the reference, Paul reiterated the sentiment as he pumped up his supporters for the next contest. Making the top three is great, he said. But Santorum isn’t viable, he implied, and voters who aren’t sold on Mitt Romney should be looking to himself.

The slights continued during last weekend’s two debates. Paul called Santorum a “corrupt” conservative-pretender, and at a town hall in Meredith, N.H., on Sunday, his son Senator Rand Paul directed insults at a nameless candidate who espouses fiscal responsibility and then votes to double the size of the Department of Education. So why all the effort to undermine the long ignored former Pennsylvania Senator?

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The Paul camp says front runner Romney is practically running his own race in New Hampshire, at a speed that leaves little (if any) hope for catching up to him. So rather than go after what Paul sees as unobtainable voters in support of Romney, he’s trying to steal the less-committed folks in order to take as much of the non-Romney vote as he can get.

“There are the people that want the status quo that are going with Romney,” says Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton. “There is a bigger group of people that want something different … and we’re fighting to be [that] candidate.” Romney has a home-court advantage, Benton acknowledged; the former Massachusetts governor made New Hampshire his home and has enjoyed mounting support there for years. “We’re not fishing from the same pond,” Benton says.

Paul and Santorum may be sharing a fishing hole, as Benton suggests, but their methods for catching voters couldn’t be more different. Paul concentrates on the perils of inflation, while Santorum looks to the importance of the traditional family unit. Paul rarely invokes God in his stump speech; Santorum often does. Paul’s hands-off libertarian philosophy, which leaves issues like gay marriage and abortion to the states, clashes with Santorum’s desire for federal injunctions against such acts. Paul is 76 and has sat on the back benches of Congress for decades; Santorum is 53 and stealing the spotlight early in his career.

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For the attendees at Sunday’s town hall, the defining difference was the candidates’ divergent stances on foreign policy, especially Santorum’s saber rattling on Iran and Paul’s disinclination to treat that country as a threat. Kevin Paiva, a 23-year-old insurance salesman, said he was attracted to Paul’s noninterventionism and turned off by what he called Santorum’s near “war mongering.” Audrey Kincaid, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but promises to vote for Paul in 2012 if he gets to the general election, branded Santorum’s foreign policy as “Run everybody over.” One undecided independent voter said it seemed like Santorum was on a “jihad” against Iran. Elsewhere, many Republicans have said they would vote for Paul if his foreign policy views were more in line with the GOP mainstream.

Even if Paul may struggle to win over Santorum voters with his foreign policy, and vice versa, he’s making an aggressive argument about domestic policy, specifically spending, that has a lot of potential. The argument, as Benton puts it, is that “Rick Santorum’s fooling a lot of people into thinking he’s some sort of limited-government conservative, [but] he’s a Big Government Republican who voted for a lot of debt and a lot of spending.” The campaign is banking on it in New Hampshire and elsewhere; Paul will begin airing an ad on Monday in South Carolina that aims to expose Santorum’s ties to lobbyists and willingness to increase the deficit.

“The higher you get in the polls, the more attacks you get,” Paul said on Sunday, addressing Santorum’s assertion that Paul would make a “dangerous” Commander in Chief. The same rule also applies to Santorum. His second-place Iowa finish gave him a burst of momentum in New Hampshire, but Paul’s attacks may be helping to reverse the effect. A Rasmussen poll released on Friday found Granite State voters breaking 13% for Santorum and 18% for Paul; Romney pulled in a massive 42%. A poll released on Sunday, conducted by New Hampshire’s 7 News and Suffolk University, found Romney taking 35%, while Paul’s support swelled to 20%; Santorum was down to 8%.

Some of that is likely the result of Santorum’s own struggles rather than Paul’s offensive playbook. Either way, Paul is reaping the benefit. Benton says his campaign’s polling indicates that Paul is the preferred second choice for a plurality of Newt Gingrich and Santorum voters, and Paul has zealous missionaries in New Hampshire to help convert the disenchanted. Driving up Interstate 93, one sees the occasional sign for Romney or Jon Huntsman or Gingrich plopped in the ground, but only the Ronulans have covered the overpasses with giant banners.

All of which has Team Paul flush with confidence. Benton says the campaign’s worst-case scenario is coming in “a strong second place.” Of course, even if they pick Santorum’s support base to the bone, a strong second is likely to be Paul’s best-case scenario too. Romney’s lead is just that big. But if Paul can grab second in New Hampshire while topping the 21% of the vote he got in Iowa and reducing Santorum to a footnote, it will go a long way to making Paul the not-Romney favorite as the race heads to South Carolina.

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