BUSINESS INSIDER | Grace Wyler | January 10, 2012
New Hampshire's voting booths have only been open for a few hours, but with Ron Paul poised to come in second, or at least a close third, the campaign team is already feeling pretty good about tonight.
It's a far cry from 2008, when Paul finished fifth in New Hampshire with about 8% of the vote. But his message appears to be resonating with a broader range of Granite Staters this time around — huge crowds have turned out to see Paul here this week, and the Texas Congressman and his family are mobbed by fans and reporters at every turn.
Even Paul's top advisors has been surprised by the success. Sources close to the campaign tell Business Insider that Paul's poll numbers, and his strong finish in Iowa, far exceeded internal expectations. The campaign now believes that if the race continues as it has, it could be Paul who emerges as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.
Paul's unexpected momentum may be pushing the campaign to recalibrate its strategy, which is focused on collecting delegates for the Republican National Convention. According to sources, the campaign team has always believed that this plan would get them to the convention with a sizable chunk of delegates that could give Paul some leverage in the Republican Party. (See Why Ron Paul Gets My New Hampshire Primary Vote)
That strategy is behind Paul's decision to largely bypass Florida's primary contest later this month. Unlike other early voting states, which award delegates proportionally, Florida is a "winner-take-all" primary. Moreover, Florida's decision to move its primary up to January cost the state half of its 99 delegates. The state's size and its expensive media markets make it a sinkhole for campaign cash, and the Paul campaign very practically decided that it wasn't worth shelling out all that dough for a measly 50 delegates.
"We're a delegate-focused campaign," Paul's campaign chairman Jesse Benton told Business Insider. "After South Carolina, we plan on focusing a lot on states with February caucuses — Nevada, Louisiana, Maine."
But sources on the campaign told Business Insider that those plans could change if Paul exceeds expectations in South Carolina next week.
"Internally, we're taking it one race at a time — that's the great lesson of this cycle," one source said. "We're number one among independents, we're number one among those who are looking for a true conservative, and that bodes well for us as the field gets winnowed out."
Paul's strategists aren't the only ones who believes the Republican nominating contest will be a long one, even if Romney wins in Florida and South Carolina. In a memo obtained by Politico this weekend, Jon Huntsman's chief campaign strategist John Weaver notes that the primary battle "will go on well into the Spring, until a decisive set of primaries between only two or perhaps three candidates have concluded."
Weaver writes: "The anti-Romney vote now hovers between 55 and 75 percent in each state. While Team Romney has used and will continue to use that to their initial advantage, ultimately the coalescing of support behind one consistent, electable conservative candidate will be the undoing of the White Star Line moderate."
Weaver, along with most of the Republican and media Establishment, dismiss Paul's campaign as a "gadfly" that only serves to cushion Romney.
Commenting on the memo, Benton said it looked like the "last gasp of a dying campaign." But Weaver's basic premise — that voters will finally coalesce around a Romney alternative — has also been embraced by Paul's campaign. According to their line of thinking, Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Perry won't have the staying power to actually go head to head with Romney — leaving Paul as the only alternative.
If the strategy goes off as planned, sources close to the campaign say they believe Paul could deny Romney the delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at the convention, making it hard for the party to continue to ignore the Ron Paul Movement.
"People are always asking if we are going to run as a third party, but that may not be the relevant question," a source inside the campaign told Business Insider. "The question might be what is going to happen to all his supporters…You can call us whatever you want to call us, but this group we are bringing in is very important to the GOP — they can't win without them."