Four years ago, Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished fifth in the New Hampshire presidential primary with just under 8 percent of the vote.
On Tuesday, he got nearly 23 percent of the vote in this year’s New Hampshire primary — finishing second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Republican contest. That came a week after Paul’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
Paul has done better than any Republican presidential contender not named Romney, and his success is part of the buzz at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in New Orleans, which runs through Saturday.
Some are surprised by his showing. Some are happy about his success. And some are worried that Paul’s allure — he’s attracting support from outside the Republican Party by advocating everything from legalizing marijuana to immediately withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan — could influence him to eventually consider a third-party bid for the White House.
Mixed Opinions Among Republican Leaders
“I think Ron Paul brings a lot of energy to the party and a lot of new people to the party, so I think it’s actually healthy to have him out there,” said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan committeeman and longtime supporter of Romney.
Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson hopes Paul’s advocacy of smaller government and expanded liberties makes its mark on the GOP.
“I think at the end of the day, in the event he is not the nominee, that many of his ideas will be subsumed within the Republican platform and perhaps adopted by the nominee,” said Fahleson.
Still, many Republican officials remain wary of the Texas congressman.
Jan Staples, a committeewoman from Maine, doubts Paul and his ideas have much support among the Republican Party faithful.
“Most of us have a bit of a libertarian streak, leave most people alone. But we don’t want to leave people alone to the point that we become a lawless sort of, ‘There’s no rules, anything goes, what’s happening now is just fine with all of us.’ … We don’t want to go as far as some folks in the Ron Paul [camp] might like to,” said Staples.
And while Paul has ground operations in states across the map, it was impossible to find any GOP official who considered his candidacy a real threat to front-runner Romney.
Ralph Seekins, a committeeman from Alaska, does not expect Paul’s support to keep growing.
“I think that he’s probably got the people that are going to support him at this point, and I don’t really think that he’s going to be able to pick up those that drop out later on,” said Seekins.
The Potential For An Independent Run
And might that prompt Paul to run as a third party candidate, something he has not categorically ruled out doing?
Seekins doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think he’s that dumb. Because that would simply be a vote for [President] Obama,” said Seekins. “I don’t think that that’s what he wants to do.”
Carolyn McLarty, a committeewoman from Oklahoma, says she is holding out hope that Paul won’t make an independent run.
“He is a Republican. He’s always run as a Republican,” says McLarty, before correcting herself. “Well, no, he hasn’t always run as a Republican. But lately he has, so hopefully he won’t take off on his own like that.”
In 1988, Paul made a bid for the presidency as the Libertarian Party candidate.
One reason Republicans don’t expect Paul to buck his party this election season is, at this point, it would be hard to get on the ballot in many states running as a non-Republican.
They also point to the fact that his son, Rand, is a Republican senator from Kentucky, deepening the Paul identity with the GOP.
One thing everyone does seem to expect is that Ron Paul will compete in every primary, then make a stand for his ideas at the nominating convention in Tampa.