Ron Paul's intense following contains seeds of disaster for GOP

Ron Paul, who is running a solid second in New Hampshire, has said he does not plan to run as a third-party candidate if he's not the GOP nominee. But some Republicans are worried. 

Stephan Savoia/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, answers a question during a campaign event in Meredith, N.H., Sunday.

Rep. Ron Paul knows how to pack them in.

At a town hall in Meredith, N.H., Sunday afternoon, the libertarian-oriented phenomenon from Texas doesn’t need to raise his voice or rhetorically shape-shift to keep several hundred voters hanging on every word.

He delivers the tried-and-true, small-government Paul message: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are bankrupting the country with bailouts. It’s time, he says, to stop wasting money on “unwinnable, undeclared wars.” It’s also time to eliminate many government agencies.

“It’s not the government’s job to educate you, it’s your parents’ job,” Congressman Paul tells a girl who asked about his plan to get rid of the Department of Education.

The latest round of polling ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary in New Hampshire shows Paul at about 20 percent, solidly in second place, though well behind front-runner Mitt Romney. But in a crowded field, 20 percent is a meaningful chunk – especially if there’s any possibility that Paul might take his loyal following and run as a third-party candidate. After all, in 1988 he was the Libertarian Party nominee for president (between stints as a Republican member of Congress).

Today, Paul is running well ahead of where he was four years ago, when he ran for president as a Republican. Then, he took 8 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

The third-party threat

In recent media interviews, Paul has been asked if he would consider an independent run. He always says he has no intention of doing so, but doesn’t completely rule it out.

“I’m not an absolutist,” Paul said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.” Then he puts his thumb on the scale toward not running: “Everyone knows I have no intention of doing that. It would be a bit of a burden.”

Indeed, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last September, he explained that he wouldn’t go third party, because he doesn’t have the personal wealth required to mount a credible candidacy (see fellow Texan Ross Perot, who ran in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns). And he would be excluded from debates.

But Paul added that given the “chaos in the economic system,” he wouldn’t be surprised to see someone jump in.

A subsidiary GOP concern centers on what all the Paul supporters do if their man does not win the nomination and stays on the sidelines. Will they just sit this one out? Or will they jump to an already-declared third-party candidate, such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who recently quit the Republican Party to run for the Libertarian nomination?

Paulites speak

At the town hall in Meredith, many Paul supporters weren’t sure what they would do if Paul is not the nominee – but several volunteered that they knew they would not vote for Mr. Romney.

“Romney just seems kind of shady, with his big business background,” says David Farrell, a 20-year-old from Meredith who enters the Navy next month.

Annalee, a technology worker from Merrimack who declined to reveal her last name, said she’s solidly behind Paul in the GOP primary, but if he doesn’t win the nomination, she’ll vote for Obama.

“I like Paul’s emphasis on individual liberties, but I’m concerned about his plan to do away with regulations,” she says.

Aaron Bennett, a restaurant owner from Laconia, says if Paul doesn’t get the nomination, he might just write him in on the ballot in November. And if Paul runs as an independent, he adds, “I don’t care if that takes votes away from the Republicans.”

Most 'will come around'

Jennifer Duffy, a neutral analyst for the Cook Political Report also watching the Paul event in Meredith, says some Paul supporters’ insistence that they won’t vote for the Republican nominee if it’s not Paul is typical of partisan sentiment in the heat of the primaries.

“Most of them will come around” and vote Republican, Ms. Duffy says.

In New Hampshire, she mentions the open race for governor – Gov. John Lynch (D) is retiring –and that even if the presidential race doesn’t excite some voters here, the governor’s race might. Voters in other states may find it’s the down-ballot races that bring them to the polls. And don’t discount the “anybody but Obama” feeling most Republicans share, she says.

But what if Paul does jump the GOP ship and launch a third-party candidacy? “Now that,” Duffy says, “would be a big problem for the Republicans.”

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