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The Ron Paul effect: How he is altering Republican primary calculus

Ron Paul can no longer be dismissed as 'fringe' by establishment Republicans. He has the staying power to bring his message to the masses – and transform the Republican conversation.

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“Paul’s strength shows the Republicans have the potential to attract youth voters,” who historically have leaned more Democratic, says American University government professor Jennifer Lawless. But the youth vote is unpredictable, she says, and if Paul were no longer a candidate, it’s unclear whether they would turn out, and whether they’d vote Republican or be swayed by President Obama in the general election.

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Ultimately, Professor Lawless doesn’t envision the Republican Party mainstream embracing much of what Paul advocates, but “if this gets down to a two-person race between Romney and Santorum ... the longer Paul stays in the race, the easier it is for Santorum to do well,” since Paul votes would more likely shift to Romney than to Santorum, she says.

Another dynamic down the road could be Paul throwing his support to a Libertarian candidate.

He has dismissed suggestions that he himself might mount a third-party campaign, though speculation on that front still abounds. But if he were to support Gary Johnson, who left the Republican race in December to contend for the Libertarian nomination, that could potentially influence the outcome of the general election, Richie of FairVote says.

Paul is playing an important role in the election cycle because “he’s giving American voters a choice – for much smaller government, much lower taxes, eliminating government debt, bringing our troops home  – choices the Republican and Democratic Party have refused to give them,” says Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian Party.

Not only is he inspiring voters, she says, but he’s also inspiring people with libertarian views to run for office.

He’s also winning over some people with tea party roots. One of Paul’s recent endorsements in New Hampshire came from Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition.

“It’s not so much about [which political] party anymore – it’s about government out of control,” she says. Paul is a rarity in that he’s “been in Washington but has not capitulated to the powers that be.”

When people suggest Paul is too extreme to be president, her response? “If you are on an extreme collision course you need extreme correction.”

When people portray him as wanting to legalize marijuana, Ms. Aitken says Paul would leave it to the states to decide – and as a doctor, he’s hardly an advocate for recreational drug use.

Aitken says she also admires his personal and religious life, and the way he gave free medical care to people in need as a doctor in Texas. “I know him personally. At times he does try to be a purist, because he has character and tries to stick to what he has said.”

Perhaps his biggest service, she says, is drawing attention to the idea of reining in the Federal Reserve. “Even if just that one issue comes to the fore, we’re lucky to have him doing this,” she says.

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