If Ron Paul wanted to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, it would make political sense for him to say something nice about Republicans from time to time.
But Ron Paul has never wanted to make political sense. He wants to make waves, and that’s just what he was doing Friday in New Hampshire, three days after finishing a strong third in the Iowa caucuses and positioned for a repeat performance in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
With a massive war chest, a campaign that borders on a cottage industry, and a group of supporters so maniacal that their numbers and intensity can no longer be ignored by the GOP establishment, Ron Paul, along with his son Rand, are poised to do what Ron Paul has always wanted: to change his party, and eventually the country, from the inside out.
“The Republican Party is an empty vessel unless we imbue it with values,”Rand Paul told a roaring crowd of 1,000 Friday at a Nashua airport hangar. “Just any Republican won’t do. That’s what this primary is about.”
It’s actually what Ron Paul has been about since his first run for office in 1976, when he ran to object to the United States’s abandoning the gold standard. “I ran for other reasons and ended up getting elected,” Paul explained Friday. “I had something I wanted to get off my chest.”
In April 2011, as he was still deciding whether he’d run for president, Paul told me frankly that running the country had never really interested him, but changing the country certainly had. “I don’t want power, I want influence,” he said. “I want to influence ideas.”
Ideas were front and center as Rand pumped up the Nashua rally about deficit spending and later, as Ron Paul led a group of University of New Hampshire students through a Q&A on the finer points of the Austrian school of economics.
At both events, the Pauls did what they have done their entire careers. Rather than building the GOP up in their remarks, they came a whisker short of tearing it down, hammering GOP leaders past and present for waging unnecessary wars, trampling Americans’ liberties, and mortgaging their future with runaway spending driven by political expediency and corporate influence.
“What happened under a Republican president and a Republican Congress?” Rand said before he brought his father on stage in Nashua. “We doubled the size of the debt.”
The father took over where the son left off. On civil liberties, Ron Paul called out the GOP-sponsored Patriot Act. “It should never have been passed and ought to be repealed,” he said.
On the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defining decisions of George W. Bush’s presidency, Paul said plainly, “We ought to mind our own business.” On the threat from a nuclear Iran, a slam-dunk talking point for the other Republicans in the race, Paul called it “way overblown.”
As much as Ron Paul criticized Republicans on the stump, he has unleashed a barrage of ads against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as each crested in the polls and threated to become the “anti-Romney” conservatives are so clearly searching for.
“Don’t be fooled. Rick Santorum. A record of betrayal,” warns a Paul ad, set to run in South Carolina this weekend.
The Santorum ad is nearly identical to one Paul put out against Gingrich in the closing days of the Iowa caucus campaign. Although Gingrich complained bitterly that Mitt Romney’s “super PAC” had cost him his supporters in the state, he barely mentioned Paul’s devastating million-dollar-plus ad buy that accused Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy.”
The relentless rounds of friendly fire beg the question: what are the Pauls up to? One theory often floated by Paul’s staunchest supporters is the idea of the Ron Paul nation going to the Republican convention in August and literally rewriting portions of the Republican platform to shape the party much more clearly in the libertarian mold that Paul embraces.
In an interview with CNN on Friday, Ron Paul agreed it’s something he’s considing. “It might be a way to promote the things I believe in, and that is a political action,” Paul said. “So yes, if we have something to say, who knows, maybe they might even have something in the platform that says maybe we ought to look at the Federal Reserve. Maybe we ought to reconsider not going to war unless there’s a declaration of war? That’s very popular with the American people.”
Although Romney and Santorum have pulled in more votes, the intensity of Paul’s support has not yet been replicated by any other Republican or Democrat in the presidential race. While Romney typically draws a polite, business-oriented crowd to his events, and Santorum brought out hundreds of Christian-right Iowans curious to know more about him last week, Paul consistently strikes a figure somewhere between a beloved grandpa and a movie star.
The volume of some of his rallies rivals a rock concert, while only a Paul event guarantees traffic jams, both there and back. Upon shaking Paul’s hand at the Nashua rally, a college-aged student raised his own and yelled, “This is the hand that shook Ron Paul’s hand! That’s right, ladies. Check it out!”
After that rally, Sydney Walsh, of Troy, N.H., called Paul “our last hope of restoring our country to our grandchildren.” Following the UNH event, Brandon, 26, from Dover, N.H., said, “Honestly I don’t want to be in this country if he’s not elected.” (Brandon withheld his last name, calling all media “propaganda.”)
Aaron Corbett, 24, a student at UNH, said that Paul “is the only genuine person in politics that I’ve found at all.” Like everyone interviewed, Corbett said he would absolutely vote for the congressman if he decided to run on a third-party ticket and added that he will not vote for anyone—Republican or Democrat--other than Ron Paul for president in 2012.
That kind of devotion from Paul’s supporters has lent itself to speculation as to whether he would, or could, mount a third-party run. Although he certainly has the infrastructure, the money, and the support to do it, playing the spoiler in 2012 could damage Rand’s prospects of running for president in 2016, something both Pauls have hinted at as a possibility.
Could today’s Ron Paul follower be tomorrow’s Rand Paul voter? Corbett smiled and said, “If he’s anything like his dad, I’d like him.”