WALL STREET JOURNAL
Gerald F. Seib
December 12, 2011
Ron Paul is the wild card in the Republican presidential deck—and that makes him one of the most important cards of all right now.
It was possible earlier this year to write off the libertarian Texas congressman as an eccentric simply looking, as he did four years ago, for a place on a debate stage to proclaim his gospel of small government and hard money. But now Mr. Paul appears to be the man who could shape the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, which could go a long way toward shaping the overall race.
Indeed, to watch Saturday night's Iowa debate, and hear the audience reaction to Rep. Paul, was to sense how well he is striking chords with voters. A strong Paul performance in Iowa would go a long way toward determining not just the outcome of the Jan. 3 caucuses there, but the path of the crucial phase of the race that immediately follows Iowa.
If Mr. Paul does well in Iowa, he could so muddy the waters that there is no clear winner. An inconclusive outcome would be a boon for Mr. Romney, who hasn't done all that well in Iowa, and who is counting much more heavily on winning the New Hampshire primary a week later. A murky Iowa result would reduce any momentum the upstart Mr. Gingrich might enjoy heading into New Hampshire.
New Hampshire, in turn, is looking ever more important for Mr. Romney, because it's followed by South Carolina and Florida, where Mr. Gingrich is surging. So the way Iowa sets the table for New Hampshire is highly important, and the Paul factor will be central to the table-setting.
If Mr. Paul really exceeds expectations in Iowa, that also might set the stage for him to break away from the GOP down the road and mount an independent presidential run. After all, he ran once before as a Libertarian Party candidate, in 1988.
"If Paul wins Iowa, which is not out of the question, then you're going to see a lot of forces [within the Republican Party] try to denigrate him and cut him back," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Then I could see Paul saying, 'I've been screwed by this party's establishment, so screw you, I'll run as an independent.' "
There are two particular reasons to take Mr. Paul particularly seriously in Iowa. One is the strange nature of caucuses, and the second is the resonance of his libertarian message in this year of evaporating faith in government.
Doing well in caucuses requires finding supporters who will go the extra mile for you. Voters aren't merely asked, as in a primary election, to show up at a local polling station and check a name on a ballot, but rather to venture out on a cold January night, in the case of Iowa, to a meeting and voice public support.
That assignment seems to fit Mr. Paul's followers, who carry a special degree of intensity into their political activity. Their passion "isn't about personality but philosophy," Mr. Ornstein notes.
That may be especially true this year, when the Paul message of radically scaling back the size and scope of government would appear to match a mood of public disgust at Washington and its seeming inability to come together to perform even the most basic of functions. To be the man identified with cutting down government at a time when everybody hates government may be the political equivalent of selling hot chocolate to a freezing crowd at a football game.
There are some significant soft spots that would seem to limit how far Mr. Paul can rise. His laissez-faire attitude toward social issues and his nearly isolationist views on foreign policy run into resistance among the GOP's social and religious conservatives and its national-security hawks.
In addition, a surprisingly large bloc of Paul support comes from young voters. A compilation of recent Gallup polls shows Mr. Paul runs 10 percentage points higher among Republicans aged 18 to 34 than among the population at large. That raises the question: Will young voters, particularly those still in college and on winter break, show up for caucuses in the same way older Paul backers will?
Still, there is that intensity, remarked even by one of Mr. Paul's foes at Saturday's debate. Mr. Romney noted admiringly that what "amazes me is, when I come to a debate like this, the only signs I see are the Ron Paul people out there."
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