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What makes such a scenario very unlikely is both Paul’s general aura of anti-establishment weirdness and his foreign policy stance, which focuses on the promotion of free trade but shuns military intervention not in direct defense of the homeland. The eccentricity factor seems to be either slowly dissolving or coming to be seen as a feature rather than a bug by more and more Americans who are sick of the status quo. Paul received endorsements from some prominent South Carolina Tea Partiers such as state Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort). U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said in the leadup to the South Carolina primary that Paul’s “libertarian principles are the conscience of the Republican Party,” although he stopped short of an endorsement. Despite these signs of GOP respectability, Paul and his fans still enjoy playing the insurrectionists, delighting in identifying themselves as “dangerous to the status quo,” as Paul put it in his speech in New Hampshire on the night of the primary.
Handling the foreign policy objection will be trickier. To many in the media and among his progressive fans, Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy is the single most important thing about his campaign. In September he told a lunch crowd at a convention of the Paulist Campaign for Liberty that he views foreign policy as his central reason for running.
Paul’s campaign staffers know foreign policy is his weak point with Republican voters and could be a weak point even against Obama, if it came to that. The official door hanger for New Hampshire had six subheadings, and foreign policy wasn’t one of them—although ending foreign wars was listed as one of many “spending” issues. The campaign’s phone bankers find that the most important issues for Paul supporters are overwhelmingly the economy, jobs, and spending.
But in the big debates leading up to South Carolina, Paul still refused to be triumphalist about how the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. He still invoked the Golden Rule as a touchstone for U.S. foreign policy. He still argued that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained just as a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was contained and that there is no need to start a war over the issue. Paul’s refusal to be anyone but Paul is why most of his fans love him. It is also why he may indeed have a ceiling of GOP support.
Paul is not trying to explain himself in a way that mollifies jingoistic Republicans. But at his New Hampshire results party, his state campaign chairman, state Sen. Jim Forsythe, summed up Paul’s foreign policy with a slogan that could appeal to many Republicans: “A foreign policy of defense for America.” Judging from Paul’s 21 percent in Iowa and 23 percent in New Hampshire, this idea appeals to many voters, across party and ideological lines. Paul seems to have known better than the rest of the world that there was a good rationale for running in 2008 and a better one to run again in 2012.
At an impromptu press conference after a packed-to-the-gills town hall in Meredith, New Hampshire, the weekend before the primary, Paul was asked about his strategy to win. “I’m not very good at answering questions like that about strategy,” he said, “because I keep thinking: I do the same thing, over and over!” And he does. He talks about liberty, debt, inflation, and peace. And the more he does it, the more people listen.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of the forthcoming book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside).