Ames, Iowa — Rep. Ron Paul has crisscrossed the Hawkeye State for months, generating enthusiasm for his presidential campaign. But his efforts involve more than pressing the flesh. Paul, perhaps more than any other contender, has a plugged-in network of true believers — from Federal Reserve critics to constitutional conservatives — who communicate online, often sharing links and coordinating political activities outside of the official apparatus. Many within this sprawling movement began organizing for the Texas Republican three years ago, when Paul last ran for the White House. At the Iowa GOP’s straw poll on Saturday, which will be held on the campus of Iowa State University, the 75-year-old lawmaker will likely reap the benefits of their fervent exertion.
A Rasmussen poll released Monday shows Paul poised to finish near the top. He earned 16 percent support from likely caucus-goers in the survey, behind Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, but ahead of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a potential candidate. The strength of Paul’s Iowa base was reflected in Rasmussen’s findings, which revealed that only 28 percent of probable caucus participants are “absolutely certain” of how they will vote, with many undecided Republicans planning to attend the event. Yet among those who are certain, Paul laps the field, with 27 percent of decided attendees in his camp.
In the final hours, Paul is making a hard push to get that number even higher. Along with 30 members of his extended family, who took a 17-hour bus trip from Texas to join him on the trail, he is hitting small-town street corners and the state fair in Des Moines. His son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea-party favorite, has been at his side. “We are seeing big crowds everywhere,” Senator Paul told me as he jumped onto the bus with his wife, Kelley. “In the middle of the day yesterday in Mason City, we had 120 people packed in there.” The crowd at an Ames hotel that morning was another large group, with Paul supporters cheering on the congressman over coffee and crispy lemon Danishes.
“I think Ron has been underestimated by a lot of the national media, in particular,” says Rep. Steve King, an influential GOP congressman from western Iowa. “He has been working in this state for about five years,” planting the seeds for success in this campaign under the radar of the press. “If there is a low turnout on Saturday, Ron Paul is in a position to win the straw poll. His supporters are the solid libertarians who have a lot of conviction and he can motivate them to come out for him.” King thinks the most notable aspect of Paul’s 2012 campaign is that his supporters — unlike those of many other prominent candidates — actually are “Iowans.”
Both King and Paul’s campaign point to oft-ignored southern Iowa, the small towns on the Missouri border, as a Paul stronghold, with their rural, conservative leanings. “They’re really his people,” says Chuck Laudner, a longtime Iowa GOP operative. “The other candidates have soft support.” Speaking Thursday in a first-floor conference room, Paul predicted a strong straw-poll showing. He credited his flinty, axe-it-all platform as the reason, arguing that since his last run, his ideas have more resonance in Republican circles. “It’s catching on. They have accused me now of being mainstream,” he chuckled. “Can you imagine that? All I know is that I haven’t changed my views, so maybe the sentiment is shifting.”
Days after 30 U.S. troops were killed by Taliban militants, Paul emphasized that as president, he would quickly remove American forces from Afghanistan. His foreign-policy remarks drew nods from many around the room, who told me afterward that they are frustrated by the ongoing conflicts and their personal and fiscal costs. “Things aren’t going so well there. This week has been a bad week for us,” he said. “I get such heartache when I think of our men and women serving and dying.” He added that he would take a different position “if . . . we had a precise enemy, and we could declare war and know how victory could come about, like we did in World War II.” But as things stand, he remains committed to withdrawal.
“This is in the Republican tradition,” Paul noted. He cited the late Ohio Republican senator Bob Taft as an example of how conservatives have long been against “entangling alliances” and extensive military engagements. “Today we go into Libya and we go into Afghanistan under a NATO banner. We look for U.N. resolutions,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t even want to be in the United Nations.” He compared his view on such matters to that of H. R. Gross, a late Iowa congressman who retired from office in 1974. Many in the room seemed unaware of the reference, but Paul pressed on, praising Gross and his “Old Right” beliefs, which he thinks are bubbling up once again within the party. “It’s a winner, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.