“‘Oh, I’d probably have trouble,’ Paul said to a question of supporting Gingrich’s candidacy, adding that he wouldn’t be able to support the nominee in general if the ‘policies of the Republican Party are the same as the Democrat Party.’…

“‘I’m gonna come in, I think, first or second,’ Paul said today in an interview airing this weekend on Bloomberg Television’s ‘Political Capital with Al Hunt.’ ‘If I did come in fifth or sixth, that would be a real shocker.’…

“Romney would be the least objectionable of his party’s potential nominees, Paul said in the interview, yet he wouldn’t commit to supporting him as the 2012 Republican candidate and refused to rule out a third-party run.

“‘I think he probably understands how the market works as a businessman a little bit better than a guy like Gingrich,’ Paul said of Romney.”

***

“Based on discussion with a dozen supporters at candidate events across the state — including a Paul rally of about 500 here Wednesday night – the Paul Posse contains a considerable ‘Ron or I’m Gone’ population.

“Of those people interviewed, three said they would vote for the Republican nominee if it was not Mr. Paul, and two said they were not sure. But seven respondents said they would support only Mr. Paul in the general election – either as a write-in or a third-party candidate (the latter of which Mr. Paul has not ruled out). Ideally, they said, he would be the Republican nominee…

“‘I would not vote for anyone else,’ said Eric Grote, who travelled to Iowa from Turkey, where he lives half the year, to attend Mr. Paul’s rally in Des Moines. He wore a big Tea Party button. ‘All the other candidates, Democrat or Republican, are reading from the same sheet of music,’ he said.”

***

“The central thesis of Paul’s stump speech is that the government’s singular role is to protect our liberties. And part of true liberty, Paul believes, is making personal choices without interference from the federal government. In every speech Paul reaches a moment in which he relays that We don’t have to agree on everything: people should have their own religion, their own intellectual pursuits and the right to live their private lives however they see fit. That last part strikes some as a tacit acceptance of liberal positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage—and on some level it is. While Paul himself would support state bans for such things, his stay-out-of-people’s-business philosophy is absolute at the federal level. ‘I like that he’s for less governmental involvement in our lives,’ said Erin Nevius, a 24-year-old who classifies herself as independent and attended a Paul town hall on Thursday. ‘For being a Republican, I think he has some pretty liberal ideas.’

“Couple that with Paul’s support for the Occupy movement–its spirit, not its preferred tax policy–and you have a liberal-friendly message. ‘Wealth is being accumulated into smaller and smaller hands,’ he said on Thursday. ‘Right now, big business makes more money paying high-paid lobbyists going to Washington to get a good deal than trying to satisfy you, the customer. And that needs to be reversed.’ Paul’s message focuses on the weak economy, a grievance pretty much everyone can get behind. There is always the possibility that liberal voters will realize how conservative he is on issues like taxation, entitlements or abortion, but Paul’s libertarianism acts as a buffer. And that could make all the difference when voters caucus Tuesday night across Iowa.”

***

“Mr. Paul should be given credit for his efforts to promote these ideas and other libertarian policies, all of which would make America better off. He’d be the first to admit he’s not the most erudite candidate to make the case, but surely part of his appeal is his very genuine persona.

“Which is not to say that Mr. Paul is always in sync with mainstream libertarians. His seeming indifference to attempts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, his support for a constitutional amendment to deny birthright citizenship to children of illegal aliens, and his opposition to the Nafta and Cafta free trade agreements in the name of doctrinal purity are at odds with most libertarians…

“Support for dynamic market capitalism (as opposed to crony capitalism), social tolerance, and a healthy skepticism of foreign military adventurism is a combination of views held by a plurality of Americans. It is why the 21st century is likely to be a libertarian century. It is why the focus should be on Ron Paul’s philosophy and his policy proposals in 2012.”

***

“Rep. Ron Paul is most associated with his economic and foreign policy views, but one of the secrets to his success is the appeal he’s making to Iowa’s socially conservative electorate, something that may come as a surprise to those who know him as a gadfly libertarian.

“On table outside a Paul town hall meeting in a public library here, attendees were offered fliers promoting Ron Paul as a ‘pro-life champion’ and somebody who would ‘defend traditional marriage.’ None of the materials mentioned anything about foreign policy, unless you count the linguine recipe in the ‘Ron Paul Family Cook Book.’…

“And one of the advantages of having been dismissed as a crank who couldn’t win the caucuses is that it has allowed Paul to skate under the radar and make it easier to thread the needle between his appeal to libertarians and to social conservatives. Had he been taken seriously as a front-runner earlier in the process, he’d probably be subject to negative ads informing conservatives that Paul does support the right of individual states to allow gay marriage. Instead, the lower profile has allowed him to quietly make his case to social conservatives, and expand his base beyond libertarians.”

***

“But looking at the primary season merely through the lens of winners and losers misses an essential point about Ron Paul, I think. Winning the GOP nomination (and maybe even the presidency!) may be this year’s goal, but the ultimate, oft-stated purpose to Paul’s 35+ years in public life has been to spread the message of freedom, of constitutionally limited government. Even a losing primary season—say, like Jerry Brown’s underdog role against Bill Clinton in 1992—becomes a prime opportunity for salesmanship. Paul, unlike the rest of the non-Romney field, has the money and stamina for such a fight.

“Another objective, as Silver points out, is that Paul ‘could certainly control a substantial enough minority to become a power broker at the Republican National Convention, something that is an explicit goal of his campaign.’ In my sporadic conversations with Paul insiders, the convention/delegates strategy has come up every time. If they can’t prevail in a brokered convention, the Paulities at least hope to get a prime-time speaking slot, a hand in the platform-writing, and more besides…

“So Ron Paul’s in it for the long haul. Republicans gearing up for a post-Iowa purge festival should be asking themselves one question: Do they really want to alienate the enthusiastic supporters of the only GOP candidate who either talks convincingly about cutting government or appeals noticeably to the non-Republican swing voters who tip most modern elections? The answer to that question may determine the future of the Republican Party.”

***

“But there’s a paradox buried inside Paul’s rise in the Republican field, a time bomb ticking away. Call it the curse of the ‘Paulbots.’

“The more Paul rises, the more he needs to temper his rhetoric and fine-tune his message (especially given the kind of baggage he carries). And the more he needs a fine-tuned message, the more he has to control his fractious fans. But people who organize themselves online today are notoriously hard to control…

“But things are about to get a bit crazy. Paul’s late surge and possible win next week in Iowa are going to generate a huge burst of national media attention and plenty of hard-edged questions about his past and views. And the Paulbot base doesn’t handle criticism very well…

“If the Internet hyper-empowers small groups of people, enabling them to punch above their weight, it also hyper-exposes them. In the coming days, as Paul’s star rises, his online base is going to be tested as much as he is.”

***

“In response to these remarks, Wead pointed to the Constitution. ‘A lot of what Ron Paul says and believes is misrepresented. He believes strongly in the Constitution,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing dangerous about the U.S. Constitution. If we decided we needed to react, as a president he would take it to the U.S. Congress. We’d decide; we’d declare war; we’d win it, and then we’d get out.'”