CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- After months of campaigning, Republicans here are fired up and ready to take on Barack Obama in the fall. But there's a lingering concern that they'll also be taking on Ron Paul.
The possibility of a third-party candidacy hovers over the Texas congressman's campaign events, if not the entire Iowa race. Paul is doing well in the polls and is an outside possibility to win the caucuses today. But his views are significantly at odds with the majority of Republicans, and he's got no realistic chance of winning the GOP nomination. With independent activists already doing the heavy labor of securing November ballot slots for a third party, and Paul's name prominently among those who could become its standard-bearer, Republicans are reluctant to condemn him too strongly, lest he decide to jump.
The possibility is, to say the least, intriguing. And judging by Paul's appearance here at the plush Kirkwood Hotel, before a devoted crowd of followers nodding along with his every utterance, he could draw support from potential Obama voters as well as from the Tea Party wing of the GOP.
With his promise of a trillion dollars in spending cuts right off the top of the budget, Paul is way outside the parameters of both parties. But his route to those cuts may be as appealing to people on the libertarian left as on the libertarian right. He wants to dramatically reduce defense spending, and is the only candidate still railing about the horrible mistakes of the Iraq war.
Paul came into his Kirkwood Hotel event after a holiday weekend spent with his family in Texas, a potentially disastrous decision for his chances in the Iowa caucuses. While other candidates relentlessly campaigned, Paul rested -- and saw his standing in the polls start to slide. Mostly, this was because weekend revelations about Iran's nuclear program put national security back into the discussion, and Paul's unwillingness to consider military action puts him at odds with his saber-rattling rivals.
At Paul's rally in Cedar Rapids yesterday, his son Rand, a Kentucky senator, tried to reassure voters by noting that his father had received more campaign contributions from active-duty service members than any other candidate. But Paul himself didn't bother with any reassurances. After a brief, college-lecture-style recap of his beliefs -- "You should have the fruits of your labor. It should belong to you and not the government" -- he launched into a blistering attack on "undeclared wars." He went on to slam the Patriot Act and the recent legislation allowing the president to hold domestic terrorism suspects in military prisons.
In short, there was at least as much in his speech to appeal to disaffected, anti-government liberals as to anti-government conservatives. Liberal critics of the Afghanistan war and of defense spending would find a lot to like in Paul. But so, too, would many Tea Party supporters. That's the rub for the GOP, whose leaders are well aware that their likeliest nominee, Mitt Romney, is the one with the fewest ties to the Tea Party.
Will Paul go for it? At 76, he's probably at the end of his viability as a presidential candidate; it's now or never. But there's also his son to consider. Rand Paul shares his father's beliefs and seems ready to continue his quixotic effort to transform the Republican Party. Should Ron Paul prove to be this year's Ralph Nader, spoiling the chance for a GOP takeover of the White House, Rand Paul would pay the price. But what price? Rand Paul is already almost as much of an outcast in the GOP congressional caucus as his dad. Both Pauls will probably decide together whether the old man will mount a third-party campaign. And they might well go for it.