Ask Ron Paul's supporters, and they'll tell you they fully expect a certain anti-war, anti-federal reserve, anti-department of education, pro-small federal government congressman from Texas to be the Republican nominee for president.
Ask the pollsters, however, and they'll tell you a different story. Paul has 4 percent support nationally from Republican voters in the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, which puts him in sixth place. He's doing a bit better in the crucial early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire - polls in both states put him around 8 percent support - but he remains a long shot to win either contest.
Polling doesn't mean everything, of course, and Paul's backers will tell you that the numbers don't reflect Paul's true levels of support. But even in New Hampshire, where Republicans are famously libertarian-leaning, the congressman may have reached his ceiling, according to University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala.
"There's still a vein of rugged individualism in New Hampshire, especially among Republicans, but I think Paul has tapped into that vein already," says Scala. "I think we've seen as many as he's gonna get."
Still, Paul has the cash to keep his name, and message, front and center: He raised $6 million in a one-day fundraising drive on Sunday, bringing him to $18 million in the past three months, a stunning total for a candidate polling at less than five percent support nationally. He has been running television ads in New Hampshire as part of a $1.1 million ad buy, and has a new spot in production that will be on the air soon, according to his campaign. He has passionate backers willing to do everything they can to spread the Ron Paul gospel - whether via blog comment, YouTube video featuring original music, or giant blimp. And he has vowed to stay in the race until at least Feb. 5th.
All of which means Paul has a real chance to make a difference in who becomes the Republican presidential nominee - even if it's not him. In New Hampshire, independent voters can vote in either party's primary, and Paul, one of the few GOP candidates to break with Republican orthodoxy on a number of issues, is fighting for their support. His main rivals may be two other candidates who appeal to unaffiliated voters: Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.
McCain's strategy in the crucial first primary state, in fact, relies largely on winning over independents, who helped him beat George W. Bush by 18 points in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. McCain recently won the endorsement of perhaps the country's most well-known independent - Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - and has been touring the state with him in an effort to woo independent voters.
Paul and McCain are the sorts of candidates that make traditional Republican primary voters uneasy, in part because of their positions on the war (in Paul's case) and illegal immigration (in McCain's.) But there is one crucial difference, according to Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group: Republican primary voters don't see Paul as a potential winner.
"Undeclared voters want to pick a candidate who has some chance of being president," says Bennett. "The vast majority of those voters don't believe that Paul does."
Bennett characterizes Paul's supporters as "out of the Republican mainstream."
"It's a mixture of old-right conservatives that feel a little disenfranchised with where they Republican Party has gone," says Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. "A lot of independents who are sick and tired of this war and Democrats who won't commit to significant troop level reductions until 2013. And there's a whole new base of supporters, people in their 20s and 30s, who have not been in politics before."
Benton acknowledges the difficulty of convincing traditional Republican voters to support Paul.
"One of the characteristics of being a conservative is loyalty," Benton says. "Conservatives are very loyal. So it's been a difficult conversation to talk to conservatives about this war, especially conservatives who are remaining loyal to the Bush administration and our failed policy in Iraq."
Paul is a polarizing figure: The only GOP candidate who regularly gets booed in debates, he also inspires the kind of rabid support from his supporters you rarely see for more traditional candidates like Mitt Romney.
"I don't think he's anybody's second choice," says Scala. "You either love the guy, think he's the answer to the country's problems, or you've either never heard of the guy and have all these negative perceptions of him."
If the majority of Paul's supporters are truly outsiders to the political process, his presence in the race may not make much difference, since Paul voters wouldn't have broken for a candidate like McCain in the first place. But Paul's campaign, with its decentralized fundraising and unabashed libertarian ethos, has already proven that it can surprise people. Pressed to compare Paul to candidates who have come before him, Scala takes a good ten seconds to answer.
"Steve Forbes was a bit of a libertarian on economic issues, but he's nothing like Paul," says Scala. "There's Pat Buchanan in 1992, but that doesn't really work either. This campaign so far has really been in a class by itself."
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