Libertarian-leaning Paul near top in Iowa but mystifies mainstream politicians

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 17, 2011 

DES MOINES, Iowa — For weeks, it was the other Texan who was shaking things up as a front-runner in the Republican presidential race.

Now, while Gov. Rick Perry struggles to reverse his plunge in the polls, Rep. Ron Paul is the Texan on the march after pushing his way into the top tier of candidates for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

A Bloomberg News poll this week showed Paul, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a statistical dead heat as the top choices among likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers. Perry, Texas' longest serving governor, was in fifth place with 7 percent support.

For true believers like Ani DeGroot, the news of Paul's surge was no surprise.

In 2007, someone had scrawled "Google Ron Paul" on the chalkboard of her astrophysics class at the University of Iowa. She accepted the challenge and soon became an enthusiastic volunteer in Paul's 2008 presidential race.

With her candidate waging his third bid for the White House, DeGroot, now 23, has put her university studies on hold to serve as Midwest regional director of Youth for Ron Paul. She's based in the campaign's state headquarters, a tiny suburban strip-mall office where a handwritten sign proclaims, "Ron Paul Rocks."

The Bloomberg poll showed Cain, an Atlanta businessman who has been dogged by sexual harassment allegations, at the top of the field with 20 percent. Paul was in second place with 19 percent. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who is widely portrayed as the man to beat in the Republican race, had 18 percent. And Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives whose candidacy has surged in recent weeks, had 17 percent.

But it is Paul who seems to have the most dependable base of core supporters. Nearly 70 percent of those who supported him in the 2008 caucuses are standing behind him in the 2012 race, according to the poll. Among caucus-goers who say they've firmly decided on a candidate, Paul leads with 32 percent.

Paul's electoral appeal sometimes mystifies establishment politicians. Unlike Perry, whose rugged good looks often draw comparisons to the Marlboro Man, Paul is the oldest candidate in the race and is far from being the flashiest.

But the candidate's libertarian message, which includes opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a sharp retrenchment in federal spending, is attracting followers from a diverse socioeconomic range.

"His message just keeps catching on and it's growing steady, steady, steady," said Drew Ivers, who was Paul's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008 and has resumed that role in the 2012 campaign.

Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said Paul has retained the nucleus of ardent libertarians who have always embraced his past campaigns while picking up support from more traditional Republicans.

"He's been saying the same thing on the issues for a long time, and to many of his supporters, that in itself is a refreshing change to a majority of these candidates, who seem to change their minds often about where they stand," said Sanders.

At the same time, Sanders and other analysts say Paul's chances of becoming the nominee are a long shot at best.

Republicans almost uniformly agree that their fundamental goal in the 2012 race is to pick a nominee who has the best chance of beating President Barack Obama. Although the first votes are less than two months away, recent national polls have generally depicted Romney as the candidate best positioned to topple the Democratic president in next November's general election.

Ivers says Paul's support in Iowa is "textbook grassroots" and includes large shares of independents, conservative Democrats and many Republicans new to the political process, most of them united by fears about the nation's economic future and "spending, spending, spending" by the federal government.

"We have a tremendous number of people who have not been active in the past," said Ivers, 65, a retired agricultural genetics expert who has been involved in state Republican politics for more than three decades.

Tim Pugh, 34, who runs a landscape and irrigation business in Cedar Rapids, credits Paul's candidacy for transforming him into a political activist four years ago. He founded the Cedar Rapids Tea Party and sees Paul's message as something "new and fresh."

In contrast, he said, most of the other candidates "seem to be stuck in the same rut that we've had for the last 15 to 20 years." Paul, a physician, represents a Texas district outside Houston. He first sought the presidency in 1988 as a member of the Libertarian Party.

Paul had been in this year's race for nearly three months when Perry stormed onto the scene in mid-August and instantly soared into the lead. Tensions between the two Texans surfaced quickly as Paul assailed Perry's record as a former Democrat associated with Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign in Texas and claimed Perry had doubled his taxes as governor.

As Perry's support began to plunge after poor showings in debates, Paul soldiered on with what his campaign team described as steady and growing support.

Paul, who ran a close second to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in this year's Iowa straw poll, visits the state on an almost weekly basis, according to his campaign. Hundreds of young people signed up to join the campaign within weeks after Paul announced, said DeGroot, and more 1,300 turned out for an October homecoming event at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The campaign, headquartered outside the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, has augmented Paul's rallies and "Restore America Now" meet-and-greets with phone calls, mailings, ads and what Ivers calls "old-fashioned coalition building. The Bloomberg poll found that about two-thirds of voters had heard from his organization.

"It's not sexy, it's not fancy," said Ivers. "We just do the basic homework."

(Dave Montgomery is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.)

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