Q&A: Ron Paul, Iowa’s Third-Place Finisher

Before his bronze-medal finish in Tuesday's Iowa caucus, TIME spoke with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul about his libertarian message, the campaign that lies ahead and whom he could support in the general election. A lightly edited transcript follows

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Brendan Hoffman / Prime for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul holds a caucus night rally Jan. 3, 2012 in Ankeny, Iowa.

You said in an interview on Monday that you didn’t really see yourself in the Oval Office. Do you truly not see yourself there?

If anybody’s honest with themselves, nobody knows who’s going to get anywhere. People sometimes brag about it. Weeks ago, Gingrich was saying ‘I’m going to win Iowa.’ Today he says ‘I’m not going to win Iowa.’ So I don’t think anybody should make those bold predictions. But I feel good about it. I think we’re going to do very well, and if you continue to do very well, then you can win the whole election.

So you didn’t mean to indicate that you were less likely to make it than other candidates?

No. I think that headline grossly distorted what I said. They asked the question, ‘Are you running to be elected, or are you running for a cause?’ Why do you have to have one or the other? I can run for a cause, but isn’t your cause promoted by winning the election? So they sort of dropped the first half off. I think the two go together. I always run for a cause when I run for Congress. And I think sticking to your guns and being known for certain principles, that’s what we should do. People run to get elected only and they don’t have much of a cause or belief or conviction, but you don’t have to have one or the other.

Would you say spreading your message is as important as winning?

I can’t possibly separate the two, because we’re a couple hours before a vote. I see them right together, and a person like myself–I’ve had elections which I didn’t win, but I always kept working on that message no matter what. The more elections I win, the more support I get for the message. It shows that the number of people that support the issues is growing. That’s where we feel real good about it, when we look at the rallies and the students coming out. That to me is a lot of reassurance that we can not only win the election, but we can also influence a whole generation.

Why is your message particularly relevant in 2012?

There is definitely a change from four years ago. There’s a change from 30-some years ago when I became concerned about the direction of the country. I thought that changing our economic policies and monetary policies would lead to the kind of problems we have today. Even in ’07, at one of our debates, I said we were already in a recession and things were bad. And the candidates sort of mocked me and laughed at me. ‘We have to defend Bush,’ you know. Then all of sudden the roof fell in and it was confirmed and people panicked and everybody got bailouts. Now everybody recognizes that there was indeed a major problem and it’s not been resolved. The deficits have exploded. Not only have [the people] caught up with what I was talking about then, but the attitude about foreign policy has shifted. Now the large majority of American people are just so tired of wasting all this money overseas and in wars that aren’t winnable. And I tie that into economic policy.

Why do you think your rivals label you as a fringe candidate?

They are incapable of shifting their opinions. They have been locked into economic planning. They have been locked into not worrying about privacy of individuals. They’ve been locked into foreign entanglements, and they can’t really psychologically back away. So, if I’m right and touching a chord with people, then they’re in a fix, because they can’t shift gears and we’re gaining strength. They have to do something to undermine my credibility, so that’s what they’re working on. Quite frankly, that doesn’t bother me too much. If I’m telling the truth, it’s the right thing, it’s the right policy and conforms to the Constitution, then we win in the end. If I’m absolutely wrong, then I just have to accept that. But I keep thinking the American people are accepting my viewpoint on these issues.

Do slights bother you?

It just sort of rolls off me because I don’t think that’s too relevant. It’s a distraction more than anything else. I’ve been in politics a long time, so I’ve had to put up with that. [Politicians] have to put on airs that we have really, really thick skin, but I don’t think anybody really likes to put up with it. But to get upset about it? Life is too short. Getting upset or angry doesn’t do yourself any good. I don’t try to protect myself for their sake. I do it because I think it’s in my best interest not to get too upset. I answer the questions I’m asked and try to prove to them that what I’m talking about is the important issue. Economic freedom, personal liberty and the Constitutional approach to foreign affairs.

What did you think when the newsletters resurfaced?

I’m not surprised. They have to try to undermine what I’m doing, and they can’t find flip-flops, they have to find something else. And if they have to rely on dealing with something I didn’t say and have disavowed and happened 20 years ago–my whole political career can be messed up by that effort but it’s still something I didn’t write and something I disavowed. So I can’t do anything more than say that and see where the chips may fall … They haven’t [attacked] any of my votes, and that’s the important thing, how we take our oath of office and how we represent the people.

Do you think the rest of the U.S. will be as receptive to your platform as Iowa?

I think so. We do a lot of polling ourselves, and I bet I get more Democrats to my rallies than anyone else. I bet I get more moderates. The other night we had the Occupiers there, and the Occupiers are standing up and speaking for me. One time the staff was a little nervous, and nothing happened, and later on we shook hands. They said, ‘We’re the occupiers and we’re all for ya!’ So that makes me feel good. Of course, the Tea Party was identified with one of our fundraising events four years ago. And that is natural for what I’m doing. If people understand what I’m doing, I’m not a right-wing conservative. That’s such a distortion. I’m a Constitutionalist, and one who believes in liberty and who actually brings people together. I think that’s what’s so attractive to young people. They understand that I’m not judgmental. I want personal behavior to be their decisions, and I want their economic decisions to be their decisions. And that if we mind our business, we don’t get involved in these very, very expensive wars overseas. I’m super-confident in the message. Of course, I know my own shortcomings in the way I deliver messages, but I think it’s the message that makes America great.

What do you mean by shortcomings?

I never use notes. I’m spontaneous and I’m more effective that way. And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, he sort of jumps around.’ And I say, well I should jump around. But I survive it all. The message always come through. Today we talked to the high school kids, and it’s the same message when I talk to the retired people.

Except for the Kelly Clarkson reference.

[Laughs] Well, that was different. I learned something there. I admitted I didn’t know who she was.

Karl Rove said you wouldn’t run as a third-party candidate because it would embarrass your son, Senator Rand Paul. Was he right?

As much as I consider what my son is doing, I think we’re two different people. I don’t think that would be the deciding factor, but I’m not making any plans. I’m not saying I know exactly what I’m going to do in six months from now … I have no plans to do it. I have no intention of doing it. And it doesn’t sound like much fun either. Besides, I’m running a tight race right now, so I can’t possibly think about that.

Could you support Mitt Romney if he wins the nomination?

I could. I like him, and I like the fact that he has a little bit better understanding of business than the rest of the candidates. He has some instincts on economic policy, but we do have a lot of disagreements. He’s not as worried about the National Defense Reauthorization Act and the military arresting people and the PATRIOT Act, and my crowds really, really get into that. I had high hopes earlier with Mitt. I think in an earlier debate he said it was time we should be thinking about getting out of Afghanistan. And I thought wow, maybe we are making progress. All of a sudden, his people must have told him, ‘Oh no. In the primary you gotta be a HAWK. You gotta be ready to go to all these wars.’ So since then, he’s been trying to out-hawk everybody else. And I see that as not good for us. I want people to deliberate and be a little bit calmer in making decisions.

Could you support Newt Gingrich?

Well, if he really came around. I’d have to see what he’s going to put on the platform, and that’s the way it really is with all of them. In many ways, their personalities are different, but I think basically they’re very much of the status quo and they propose no cuts and the Republicans haven’t done any better job than the Democrats over the years. I think there really has to be a change. And if we don’t, our country’s going to get in a lot more trouble a couple years from now. It’s on fragile legs. This dollar crisis that we have and the currency crisis overseas, that can get out of hand, and that should concern all of us.

What’s your biggest challenge after Iowa?

It’s just to build on the momentum. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, I’ll get so much momentum, I’ll beat Mitt Romney in New Hampshire,’ but if you can pick up some support here and get in second in New Hampshire, I’d say that’s pretty good. And this thing moves pretty quickly after that. The concentration has been so much on these two states. The traveling and the money and the investment and the organization. But if I come in a far third or a fourth, that will be disappointing. Not so much about me, but we have these young people. Thousands of people phone calling from around the country, trying to get the vote out. I would feel badly for them, not myself.

What books have you been reading on the trail?

Currency Wars by James Rickards. And it seems silly, but I just read a book on the history of Keynesian economics.