To gauge how far Ron Paul and his libertarian revolution have come, consider the GOP candidate's role in the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.: Mr. Paul wasn't invited to speak and, along with 10,000 of his supporters, held a counter-convention in protest. This year he's angling for a spot on the coveted speakers list.
This much is clear: This time, the Grand Old Party can't dismiss Paul outright. Thanks to a confluence of crises central to his platform (a record level of federal debt, mounting concern about deficit spending, multiple foreign conflicts), Paul and his anti-Federal Reserve, anti-interventionist, small-government message are keenly relevant in this year's election conversation. Support from tea partyers and a loyal – and expanding – base of followers have propelled the congressman from Texas into the final four.
So it is that the 76-year-old candidate, whom the GOP establishment might like to keep at arm's length, holds some aces in the poker game being played by the remaining presidential contenders – even though he has yet to win a single state primary or caucus. (His supporters, though, argue that Paul won the popular vote in the US Virgin Islands caucuses on March 10, though Mitt Romney snagged more delegates to the party's national nominating convention.)
Given the delegate math, it's improbable that Paul could attain the nomination. What, then, does he want to achieve by staying in the race? And what is to become of the Ron Paul Revolution – his supporters and his libertarian message – when Paul himself bows out?
He appears to have considered such questions. "Politicians don't amount to much," Paul once said, "but ideas do."
In other words, for Paul, it's about the message, not the office, says Ford O'Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC in Washington, D.C. "His intent is not to seek further office. He's trying to start a conversation about the direction of the country and the GOP."
Paul is running "to be a public proponent for his libertarian ideas about money, taxation, the purpose of government," says Brian Doherty, a senior writer at libertarian Reason Magazine and author of the forthcoming book "Ron Paul's Revolution." "He's always wanted to be a powerful spokesman for the ideas he believes in…. Running for president is a ... successful way to get that message out."
In many ways, Paul has already accomplished what he's after. He's used each debate and TV interview – and there have been many – to convince Americans about the merits of his libertarian philosophy. Where he was once an outlier – on eliminating certain federal departments and bashing the Federal Reserve, for example – some other candidates now echo his views.
Paul has also made advances on the ground, quietly waging a campaign to amass enough delegates to gain leverage at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. "Paul could have enough to win some concessions on the party platform or a prominent role at the convention," says Peter Hanson, a political scientist at the University of Denver, in an e-mail.
Moreover, if some of those delegates stick around after Paul is out of the picture, they will continue to inject the party with a libertarian brand of Republicanism.
What, exactly, is "Ron Paul Republicanism"? Paul's philosophy is a unique mix of traditional conservatism and libertarianism. A strict constitutionalist, he wants to eliminate five federal agencies, along with the Federal Reserve. Less popular with the GOP are his proposals to end all military engagements overseas, repeal the USA Patriot Act, and end the war on drugs.
Doubling vote percentage in four years
His policy proposals haven't changed much through the years, but his popularity has. When Paul launched his previous bid for the GOP nomination in January 2007, a Washington Post poll put him at just 1 percent. Today, Paul is polling about 10 percent among likely Republican voters, according to Rasmussen, and has polled as high as 24 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire. The forthright gynecologist from Texas is a household name now.
What's more, between his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids, Paul has more than doubled the percentage of votes he's won in many state primaries and caucuses around the country: from 8 percent to 23 percent in New Hampshire, 4 percent to 13 percent in South Carolina, 5 percent to 12 percent in Missouri, and 18 percent to 36 percent in Maine.
That rising popularity – and Paul's avowed loyalty to ideals rather than to any given political party – has some wondering whether the GOP's dark horse will launch a third-party bid for the presidency.
Paul says he won't, though he doesn't rule anything out. Most analysts say it's highly unlikely. But what if?
"It would be devastating to the GOP," says Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee.
Here's how devastating: A mid-December Washington Post/ABC News poll found President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47 percent in a two-way race. Inject Paul as a third-party candidate and Mr. Obama wins, taking 42 percent to Mr. Romney's 32 percent and Paul's 21 percent.
That, in short, is the Republican nightmare scenario and the reason The Washington Post called Paul "the most dangerous man in the Republican Party." It's also the reason Paul may wield more influence in the GOP than his primary and caucus finishes suggest.
Add in media speculation over a Paul-Romney alliance that has each candidate treating the other with kid gloves (which both campaigns have denied), and, the theory goes, whether by threat or pact, Paul is angling for influence.
"He wants to leave his mark," says Mr. O'Connell. "If Romney is the eventual nominee, he wants to have a say in the platform, or a say in the [vice presidency]."
Paul has said as much himself, telling CNN that gaining leverage is a "way for me to promote the things I believe in ... they might even have something in the platform that says, maybe we ought to look at the Federal Reserve and maybe we ought to reconsider and not [go] to war unless we have a declaration of war...."
For Paul, the goal is finding an establishment home for his "fringe" philosophies.
"He is unlike any of the other candidates," conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a Washington Post column in January. "They're one-time self-contained enterprises aiming for the White House. Paul is out there to build a movement that will long outlive this campaign."
What then becomes of that movement – the groundswell of support Paul has cultivated and his legions of loyal supporters – after the campaign?
For starters, his supporters won't shift allegiance easily in November.
"Some will vote for Romney, some for the Libertarian Party candidate, but the great mass of Ron voters love Ron Paul so much they just won't vote," says Mr. Doherty. "The others won't satisfy them." A Feb. 28 exit poll of voters in Michigan's GOP primary found about 35 percent of Paul voters said they won't vote for any other GOP candidate for president.
From Paul delegates to party influencers
Paul's effort to rack up delegates may pay off well after the 2012 convention. Delegates who opt to stay in their posts after Paul exits can gradually sway the party at a grass-roots level, says Doherty.
"A certain percentage will continue to sit with the party, get officer positions, and change the feel of the party and what it is willing to accept," he says, citing candidate recruitment and funneling party money as two concrete ways delegates can "make the party more of a Ron Paul party."
It wouldn't be the first time an upstart candidate has helped rechart the direction of the GOP. Until the 1960s, the Republican Party was largely an Eastern elitist organization. Though Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater lost badly to incumbent Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, he used his campaign to strengthen the resurgence of the conservative political movement throughout the 1960s.
Similarly, in 1988, GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson lost the nomination battle to George H.W. Bush only to win the war: bolstering the Christian right and transforming the GOP into a more evangelical, conservative Christian party.
"Just as Goldwater in 1960 and Pat Robertson in 1988 managed to turn their insurgent campaigns into ... movements that influenced the party's attitudes and candidates beyond their numbers," says Doherty, "so is Paul's strategy of encouraging his people to become delegates, take positions of power in local parties, and run for office themselves the best way to ensure that his libertarian beliefs steer the Republican Party down the line."
Mr. Hanson isn't so sure. "Religious voters make up too important a piece of the Republican coalition for Paul's libertarian views on issues like same-sex relationships to be fully accepted," he says. "Is Paul's philosophy likely to go mainstream within the GOP? I think the answer is no."
It may be a long shot, but Paul backers hope that as acceptance grows for Paul's "revolution," so does the chance that a similar candidate – perhaps Rand Paul – might one day win the White House.