The Bullseye on Ron Paul’s Back

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At most of Ron Paul’s events in Iowa this week, little was said about the bad press that has buffeted him outside his intimate town halls. While Paul and his fans were decrying the secrecy of the Federal Reserve, the national media highlighted a past scandal, new criticisms and constant slights from his rivals.

“He’s a threat to the status quo. … So they’re going to do whatever it takes to try to tear him down,” says Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton. “The entire establishment is gunning hard for us.”

But much of the scrutiny of Paul is coming not from fellow Republicans, but from the media, especially over a series of newsletters sponsored by Paul in the 1990s. Although Paul says he didn’t write them–the same denial he gave when the issue surfaced in 2008–the documents are bringing fresh controversy. They were written under his name and contained statements like this:

“Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.”

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an editorial calling Paul’s campaign “discredited” because of the newsletters. On Wednesday, Jon Huntsman released a video about the reports, which he titled “Unelectable.” On Thursday, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart said Paul’s campaign deserved to be “blot out.” And the most incendiary excerpts from the newsletters were recounted time and again on cable news.

The other popular target has been Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy: he wants to end U.S. military adventures abroad, from the war in Afghanistan to Marines based in Australia, and he wants to cut off all foreign aid. He essentially believes America shouldn’t get involved in any international conflict short of an attack on our own country. The publisher of an influential conservative New Hampshire paper, the Union-Leader, wrote an op-ed calling Paul’s views “dangerous” and “nothing short of nuts.” Earlier in the week, a former Paul aide said such positions were “sheer lunacy.”

These policy prescriptions have made Paul a polarizing figure. In an NBC News/Marist survey, for example, more voters name Paul  an “unacceptable” candidate than any of his rivals, even while he out-performed many of them in total support. (A TIME poll found something similar: many love him and many say they would not ever support him.) Meanwhile, Mitt Romney said on Friday that he’s “working harder than anyone to make sure [Paul’s] not the nominee.” And Michele Bachmann (for what it’s worth from someone polling in single digits) said Paul “won’t be the nominee.”

Benton says the campaign is “pushing hard back,” and while that may be true in ads and behind-the-scenes, that’s not the case in Paul’s stump speech. Yes, he references general haters who say, for example, that his “isolationist” positions are tantamount to not supporting the troops. But the candidate has maintained a positive tone and never names names in front of the crowds.

“Ron hates to get involved in that stuff,” Benton says. “He is human. And the personal attacks can sting, but he is largely able to, more than anybody I’ve ever been around, let that stuff go and stay focused and stay contained within himself.”

On Friday, there was a rare question from a town hall attendee that put Paul on defense. Why, the man asked, are Paul’s rivals branding him a radical?  “I think going up in the polls, all of a sudden, they came and felt the necessity to find something,” Paul said. “They couldn’t find any flip-flops, so they had to work on something else.” Later in the day, during an interview filmed in Sioux Center, Iowa, Paul was asked if the attacks are taking a toll. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You don’t have time to be offended. Of course no one likes it.”

Benton says Paul “has pretty broad shoulders,” which is a good thing given the size of the bullseye on his back. While the attacks haven’t been doing him much damage in Iowa, bad press could be harder to overcome as he takes his message, and baggage, to the national stage.