Nashua, N.H. — On the campaign trail, some candidates pack local diners. In New Hampshire, Ron Paul filled an entire airport hangar with supporters drawn to his unique message.
“We’re trying to salvage our Constitution and salvage our liberties,” he proclaimed to the enthusiastic crowd, who readily clapped and cheered on their candidate, as he swerved among topics as diverse as promoting internet privacy, lambasting the Fed, and attacking current levels of defense spending.
After a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa, Paul is gearing up for a top-two finish in New Hampshire. Barring a surprise late surge from Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich — or an unexpected dip in support for Mitt Romney — Paul will capture second place. For his campaign, the goal is to ensure that his second place is not so far behind Romney that it is seen as meaningless.
For Paul, it is crucial to have some momentum heading into South Carolina, which looks like it will be a significantly tougher state for him to woo than New Hampshire or Iowa. He is currently in fourth place there.
“We’re climbing into the low teens in South Carolina,” says Jesse Benton, Paul’s national campaign chair. “We haven’t campaigned there yet. We’re going to try to boost him up.” Tellingly, Paul is scheduled to do an event in South Carolina on Wednesday, a sign of both his interest in the Palmetto State and his awareness that he faces an uphill campaign there. (After winning Iowa, Paul took two days off before beginning to campaign in New Hampshire.)
Another factor is the campaign’s decision not to compete in Florida, partially due to the fact that the state is losing half its delegates because of its decision to hold its primary earlier. “To run the program we want to run, we figure it would be about 9 million bucks, for 50 delegates. I don’t know that we’re going to compete very hard in Florida,” Benton says. A Quinnipiac poll released today confirmed the campaign’s suspicions, showing Paul in a distant fourth in the Sunshine State with 10 percent support.
But the campaign is thinking long-term. “We’ve run mail and TV in Louisiana, Nevada, and Maine, and those are the tests we’re looking for coming up,” Benton says, adding that the campaign has had professional staff in those states for eight months. Organizational strength has been a hallmark of the Paul campaign this cycle: Most notably, Paul was the only candidate besides Mitt Romney to gather the onerous amount of signatures necessary to get on the Virginia primary ballot.
But if the campaign’s strategy is conventional, Paul remains firmly unconventional in his ideological positions. At a town-hall event held later that day in Durham, N.H., at the University of New Hampshire, he was unapologetic about his foreign-policy positions, which have generated significant controversy. “I want you to think about a golden rule for foreign policy. What if China did . . . in the Gulf of Mexico what we’re doing in the Persian Gulf? How would we react?” he asked the audience. “We never see it from their viewpoint. We just see it from our viewpoint.” Asked a question about corporate personhood — a favorite question of the Left — Paul did not deliver a defense of the Citizens United decision, but instead said, “Personhood implies rights. Only individuals have rights. You don’t have rights by groups.” The crowd roared in approval.
His antiwar comments drew the most applause from the crowd, mostly composed of young adults. (Sample audience question: An earnest young man asked Paul if he would consider extending Medicare benefits to young adults.) When Paul bashed Obamacare, the response was more muted: Only about half the attendees seemed to enthusiastically agree with his position. Ginny Linenkemper, a Democrat from Durham who came to hear Paul, said she didn’t like his attacks on Obamacare, but was impressed by his antiwar rhetoric. Paul, she said, was the first Republican she had ever considered voting for, and if he is the GOP nominee, she is uncertain if she would vote for him or Obama, calling it a “tough choice.”
But Paul has also won over some more traditional right-leaning voters this cycle. New Hampshire voter Tony Hrytsay, an independent who leans Republican, and who backed John McCain last cycle, said he was planning to vote for Paul this time around. He cited Paul’s views on immigration, the Federal Reserve, and foreign policy as key reasons he was a convert — and also approvingly mentioned Paul’s ideological consistency over the years.
“I honestly bought into [the idea] that he doesn’t have a chance,” Hrytsay said, in reference to why he didn’t support Paul in 2008. “I think this time, with his son’s support and the major following he’s got going on now and his position in the Iowa caucus, that he’s more likely to stick through it, and hopefully run all the way.”
Paul himself indicated his frustration with the “unelectable” narrative the media has attached to him. Asked about it in Durham, he said, “I think it’s wishful thinking on their part.”