MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republicans who were alarmed by the strong performance of Representative Ron Paul in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses must tread carefully as they deal with his rise: he has legions of supporters and could mount an independent bid should be fail to get the party’s nomination.
Ron Paul's Secret Weapon to Win GOP.)
Mr. Paul has so far said he has “no intention” of competing in November unless he wins the Republican nomination.
The 76-year-old Mr. Paul, the oldest candidate in the presidential race, had strong backing from those under 40 on Tuesday night, winning support from half of caucusgoers 24 and under and from nearly half of those between 25 and 29, according to surveys conducted by Edison Research for television networks and The Associated Press.
He also won about a third of the vote among people in their 30s, the data suggest. The only age group that Mitt Romney won, according to the exit poll, was caucusgoers 65 and older, helping propel him to victory.
Mr. Paul — who arrives here in New Hampshire on Friday seeking to shore up support before next week’s primary — also won the support of one-third of first-time caucusgoers, suggesting his ability to draw new voters to the polls.
“If we marginalize these supporters who have been touched by Ron Paul and what he has believed in over all these years, well, then, through either a third-party run of Ron Paul’s or the Democrats being able to capture some of those independents and these Libertarians who have supported what Ron Paul’s been talking about, well, then the G.O.P. is going to lose,” Sarah Palin said Tuesday on Fox News.
But while his lower-tax, antigovernment platform lines up with the goals of economic conservatives in the party, his antiwar and noninterventionist foreign policy is viewed as heretical by many of the same voters. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has even gone as far as suggesting that Mr. Paul would allow Iran to build nuclear weapons to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” with the United States perhaps to follow. But Mr. Perry’s state chairman in South Carolina, Katon Dawson, drew a distinction between candidate-driven campaign-trail attacks on Mr. Paul and any deeper criticism by the Republican establishment.
“I don’t think you can say the Republican Party is whacking Ron Paul. I haven’t seen evidence of it,” said Mr. Dawson. But he said the party must be careful not to alienate his supporters, especially independents, whose numbers are growing faster than those of voters registered in either party.
“We need them,” he said. “Barack Obama has got all hands on deck, and we have to have every independent that comes in the booth. There is a risk of alienating a lot of groups the Republican Party needs.”
The question is, Just how many of Mr. Paul’s supporters really are potential Republican loyalists? Some of his organizers are famously known for saying they would work for him or for no one.
In fact, the Iowa surveys also confirmed what rival Republican campaigns have long maintained: that as much of Mr. Paul’s support comes from those who are not Republicans as from those who are. Independent voters — who made up about a quarter of caucusgoers — supported Mr. Paul 43 percent of the time, the data suggests. Among those who identified themselves as Republicans — three-quarters of caucusgoers — he picked up just 14 percent. (See Five Myths About Ron Paul)
That support base could hamper him in primaries in which voting is limited to registered members of the party.
The bottom line: Mr. Paul’s absolute vote total in Iowa was split close to evenly between Republicans and independents, while the other leading candidates got 80 percent or more of their support from self-identified Republicans.