While the national headlines have swirled in recent days around the troublesome, racist newsletters in Rep. Ron Paul’s past, the candidate himself has continued his formidable ground campaign in Iowa, where he’s at the head of the pack in recent polls.
However his lead there, along with a strong showing in New Hampshire, is prompting alarm in some Republican corners. If Iowa delivers a win for Mr. Paul, some pundits are warning, the state will be seen as ridiculous – as fringe as the libertarian-leaning Paul is in many mainstream Republican eyes.
“If Paul wins Iowa, Iowa relegates itself to almost complete and total political obscurity,” says Patrick Griffin, an unaligned GOP strategist and senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester.
Iowa conservative radio talk show host Sam Clovis said recently, “I am not sure that [a Paul victory] is in the best interests of the state ... because I don’t think he is going to get any traction the rest of the way,” according to Newsmax.com.
But there’s a counternarrative too, one that argues that Iowa’s relevance isn’t based on picking the person most likely to become the nominee for president – for which it already has a poor track record – but on showing, through its caucus system, who the favorite is among committed partisans in the state.
If Paul wins, “it’s a victory for retail politics in Iowa,” says David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames. Besides being first, “what makes [Iowa] relevant is that it winnows the field,” providing a graceful place for candidates to exit if they do poorly, he says.
Paul’s campaign has been organizing support in the state for years, and he seems to be picking up more voters along the way as his small-government message connects with their disgust over Washington gridlock, and national debt.
“Ron Paul is a serious candidate ... [who has] spent days on end in both New Hampshire and Iowa, developed significant organizations in each state, and has respected officials involved in his campaign. If [he] does well in either state it simply illustrates the importance of working hard to earn votes in the early contests,” writes Michael Dennehy, an unaligned GOP strategist in New Hampshire, in an e-mail to the Monitor.
Even if Paul can’t win the GOP nomination, his strong performance in some states pushes other candidates to take parts of his message seriously, political experts say.
The conversation about how relevant early states like Iowa are if they aren’t more representative of the mainstream views comes up to some degree with each presidential election cycle.
But it’s perhaps more pronounced this time because Iowa has become more conservative, with a stronger Christian-conservative element, and “establishment Republicans would say that moves them further away from the center, further away from independent voters, and further away from electibility [of their top choice],” says Wayne Lesperance Jr., a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H.
Like the argument between voting with your heart or your head, Professor Lesperance says, the establishment argues, “We can nominate someone with a point of view ... or we can nominate someone who can beat Obama,” and the latter is the priority.
But the “Iowa may be crazy” narrative could also be a strategic attempt by Romney supporters to dampen expectations so that if he doesn’t win in Iowa, it won’t be viewed as a huge disappointment – and any bump that Paul or another winning candidate might get could be mitigated, says Professor Peterson.
RealClearPolitics shows Paul with 23.8 percent support in Iowa among likely caucus participants, Romney with 20.3 and Gingrich with 17.3 in its average as of Dec. 19.
It’s too early for polls to reflect whether the stories this week about Paul’s controversial newsletters are biting into his support in Iowa or elsewhere.
But it’s unlikely, Peterson says. “The thing about Ron Paul supporters is they are deeply committed ... and if you have decided to back someone and you hear something negative, you’ll counterargue for him in your head.”