DES MOINES, Iowa – Texas Representative Ron Paul might have come in third in the
Iowa vote for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, but he took to the
stage that evening confident he had prevailed.
To the applause of the
hundreds of campaign volunteers and activists who packed the post-caucus party,
Paul declared that not only did he do well enough to continue on to the New
Hampshire primary next week, but that his ideas were influencing the very
contours of the race.
“Where we are very successful is reintroducing some
ideas Republicans needed for a long time,” he told the crowd, which waved
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“Believe me this momentum is going to
continue, and this movement is going to continue, and we are going to keep
scoring, just as we have tonight.”
Indeed, it might be Paul’s political
philosophy that has the most impact on the Republican primaries and even the
general presidential race. Despite capturing 21 percent of Tuesday’s vote, he
has very little chance of winning the nomination according to political
observers. But he has earned a prominent seat at the debating table and inspired
a devoted core of constituents who are earnestly promoting his message, which
stays front and center the longer he stays in the race or toys with running as a
“I wouldn’t dismiss his third-place showing. It
was impressive. This is a candidate who has wandered around in single digits for
years,” said veteran Iowa politics watcher David Yepsen, referring to the
76-year-old politician’s previous attempts at the GOP nomination.
on to something here,” Yepsen said, referencing the angst many Americans feel
over a devastated economy and more than a decade of war in the Middle
Yepsen assessed that what Paul represents “doesn’t win, but it does
have an impact on the dialogue of the campaigns.”
Paul’s views include a
strong isolationist approach to international affairs, which would see American
troops brought home from Afghanistan, the end of foreign aid to countries
including Israel and the removal of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program,
a policy that he sees as interfering with free markets.
strides that we have made have been really on foreign policy,” Paul maintained
on Tuesday night. He pointed to “the fact that we can once again talk in
Republican circles and make it credible to talk about what Eisenhower said, to
beware of the military-industrial complex, to talk about the old days when Robert
Taft, Mr. Republican, said that we shouldn’t be engaged in these
That Paul was selected by one-fifth of Republican
caucus-goers in Iowa means that his competitors will have to think seriously
about how to reach out to his followers, according to Yepsen. Particularly since
many of those who voted for him were participating in a caucus for the first
time or even disaffected Democrats, indicating a wide appeal.
candidates are going to try to attract those votes,” Yepsen said, adding that
each nominee would try to integrate parts of his message that were sympatico
with their own postures. He suggested that US President Barack Obama would
likely emphasize his decision to bring troops home from Iraq, while his
Republican adversary would probably focus more on cutting the size of government
and the deficit, another chief issue for Paul.
On foreign policy,
however, his views are so far outside the mainstream that it would be unlikely
they would have a strong influence on the GOP.
“The Republican party will
have to undergo a massive transformation to adapt to Paul’s policies, and it’s
simply not going to happen,” said University of Virginia political expert Larry
Sabato judged that Paul’s 21% in Iowa was a ceiling – as he was
likely to fare worse in many other states – in part because his foreign policy
positions alienate so many Republican voters. That’s one of the chief reasons
Paul hasn’t been seen as a possible winner of the GOP nomination, as well as
polling in just the low single digits nationally, though he has been doing
better in New Hampshire.
But Republicans acknowledge that their party is
in some flux, with Iowa voters splitting almost evenly between the libertarian
Paul, the pragmatic former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the social
conservative Rick Santorum, formerly a senator from
“Clearly the Republican party is in a period of
soul-searching,” said Brian Kennedy, Iowa chairman for the Romney campaign. “The
party needs to decide what it’s about.”
But he predicted that, “At the
end of the day, the Republican party is going to continue to support foreign
policy that recognizes we have to have a strong United States defense, we have
to support our allies, we have to stand up to threats in the world, that we
can’t just go hide under our shell, which is essentially what Ron Paul
While he acknowledged that Paul had put the issue of a more
robust posture on Iran up for debate within the party, he concluded, “I think
it’s a debate the Republican party is going to settle on the side of, we need to
continue in our position of supporting a strong defense and supporting our
He also indicated that Romney would be pushing that perspective
aggressively in the debates that are still to come between the Republican
candidates. In his two public appearances on Tuesday, Romney made Iran the first
policy issue he addressed, and the only one on foreign relations except for a
brief mention of China in connection to American debt.
voters on Tuesday gave Paul’s foreign policy positions as a major reason they
wouldn’t vote for him.
“He’s got a lot of views I like, but he’s got some
absolutely dangerous ideas,” said Christopher Wolfe, 49, who decided to back
But Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son and one of his
most outspoken surrogates, charged that it was the other candidates who were
putting America in peril with their saber-rattling at Tehran.
many of the other candidates are dangerous and naive because they’re reckless,”
“Do you want someone to be in control of your nuclear weapons
who is reckless and does not think about the potential consequences? So I find
them to be dangerous.”
He also pushed back on the idea that his father’s
positions on international affairs hurt him with voters.
“He gains a lot
of his support by having a different foreign policy than the others,” he
Even if many Republicans are troubled by his views, Paul has been
effective in reaching beyond his party to bring in new voters. Of the first-time
caucusers who participated on Tuesday night, 33% went for Paul, by far the
In fact, there has been conjecture that he might run as a
third party candidate if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination.
Penman, 45, voted for Obama in 2008 and had never participated in the Republican
caucus before this year. She gave Paul’s foreign policy positions as a major
reason for choosing him.
“I’m behind his foreign policy 100%,” she
Yepsen noted that there is a strong isolationist sentiment in
America right now, and Paul is the candidate best at tapping into
“You don’t have to scratch very deep to find people who say we have
to end foreign aid and bring the troops home,” he said.
Sabato noted that
isolationism has always been a strong current in US politics, and that now it is
being exacerbated by the size of the debt, the economic crisis and
But he said he didn’t expect it to shake the mainstream
candidates who already had firmly established views that weren’t
Ken Wald, a University of Florida political scientist, said
that the isolationist talk on Iran and cutting foreign aid could be troubling to
“There’s no doubt he’s getting publicity and
attention,” he said. “But oftentimes when people become more aware of these
things, their support diminishes” because their views are not in line with most
“No doubt there will be some anxiety, but at the same
time the person becomes more firmly established in the public mind, [I think]
that will discredit him,” he said.
Sabato agreed that on issues such as
aid to Israel, Paul’s talk of cutting it off was a nonstarter.
fundamental” to both parties, he said.
Paul on Tuesday night offered a
different assessment of the impact his positions will have.
the issues that we have brought front and center. They’re out there.
They’re not going to go away. And we have tremendous opportunity to continue
this momentum,” he said to enthusiastic cheering.