GOP operatives fear a lasting Paul problem
Republicans dodged a big bullet at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll. If just 77 of the 4,283 people who voted for Rep. Michele Bachmann had voted instead for Rep. Ron Paul, then Paul would have won the straw poll. In the end, Bachmann came out ahead with 28.55 percent of the vote to Paul's 27.65 percent. No other candidate was close.
Some well-connected Iowa Republicans viewed it as a bullet dodged because they had long feared the possibility of a Paul victory.
"It would pour jet fuel on the East Coast narrative that Iowa is just too nutty to have such an important place in the nominating process," says one of those Republicans.
Before the poll, they saw a Paul-Bachmann one-two finish as the worst-case scenario. They ended up with Bachmann-Paul -- a result establishment Republicans viewed as somewhat better than the other way around -- and got a lot of the criticism anyway.
The criticism came not just from Democrats or so-called Eastern elite RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).
"Ron Paul is going to destroy this party if they keep him in there," said Rush Limbaugh the day after the Aug. 11 Fox News-Washington Examiner debate in Ames. "This is nuts on parade."
Key Republicans in Iowa -- and around the country, too -- are genuinely baffled by the Paul phenomenon. They understand (and share) many of Paul's views on the Constitution and limiting the size and scope of the federal government, even if they think Paul sometimes goes too far. What perplexes them is Paul's take on foreign policy, especially the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
"Why wouldn't it be natural that they might want a weapon?" Paul asked at the Fox-Examiner debate. "They'd be given more respect. ... What's so terribly bad about this?"
As for sanctions against Iran, Paul said, "Countries that you put sanctions on, you are more likely to fight them. ... I say stay out of their internal business."
The crowd in Iowa State University's Stephens Auditorium included a large group of Paul supporters who broke into loud cheers every time Paul spoke, including when he gave his views on Iran. "That audience goes nuts," Limbaugh said the next day. "I think, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I watching here?' "
It's likely most Republicans agree with Limbaugh's assessment, and Paul's ability to say such things and still remain a force in the party confuses many in the GOP.
"What part of his support is attributable to a different world view, and what part is attributable to the economic libertarian world view?" asks the well-connected Iowa Republican, who freely admits he doesn't know the answer.
No one fears that Paul will walk away with the Republican nomination. But with a strong core of supporters, he has the means to stay in the race nearly as long as he wants. That core support also earns him a spot in high-profile debates.
To qualify for the Fox-Washington Examiner debate, for example, candidates had to have at least 1 percent support in five national polls. Paul qualified with plenty of room to spare; in the most recent RealClearPolitics average of polls, he has 9 percent support, well ahead of fellow candidates Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum and, until his post-straw poll withdrawal from the race, Tim Pawlenty.
Paul also has enough money to do what he wants. He reported raising $4.5 million in the second quarter of this year, with about $3 million in the bank. Since he has decided to retire from the House, he can also spend unused funds raised for congressional campaigns.
Speaking of retirement -- one aspect of the Paul phenomenon that has received little attention so far is his age. Born in 1935, he will be 77 years old on Inauguration Day 2013 -- the same age Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House after serving two terms. If Paul were elected and re-elected, he'd be 85 at the end of his time in the White House. Even though Americans are living longer, most people would probably agree that's too old for a president.
But the Paul campaign isn't really about the practical possibility that he might become president. It's more about Paul's supporters forcing the larger political establishment to acknowledge that he's right.
"The day will come soon when candidate Paul will get his due," tweeted one supporter recently. "Blowback is gonna be a b---h."
Of course, most Republicans don't believe that. But Paul commands enough support to make his presence known all the way through next year.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.