Rep. Ron Paul and his loyal band of supporters were uncharacteristically missing from the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week — and high-profile Republican leaders say the party can't afford for that to happen in November if the GOP is to win the White House.
They pointed to, and applauded, the 76-year-old Texan's unique ability to attract young, independent and first-time voters, giving his campaign a consistent level of energy and enthusiasm that is sometimes lacking in the other presidential camps.
"It would be a dramatic error for the winning campaign to disavow Ron Paul's contributions to the process," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosted the CPAC gathering. "I am a firm believer that Ron Paul has found a niche and found a movement that he wants to have a voice. It may not be a majority movement, but it's a growing movement. So, if we are smart, he's going to have his fair opportunity at convention, and a platform committee to have his points of views discussed and expressed.
He added, "Any winning campaign of the nomination, if it is not his, should embrace him and his followers if we are going to win in November."
Mr. Paul's supporters say he is the most genuine candidate and offers a unique brand of politics that doesn't fit neatly into the Democratic-Republican duopoly that has ruled Washington for decades. Before it was chic on Capitol Hill, they say, he defended the U.S. Constitution, advocated for individual liberty and pushed for limited government through less spending and less taxation.
He also has challenged the police-the-world mentality that he blames for steering the nation into military conflicts that have cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars and diminished the nation's reputation on the global stage — a stance that has prompted some to urge him on as an independent.
Mr. Paul, though, dismisses questions about an independent run right now, saying he remains focused on winning delegates to the nominating convention.
David Keene, former ACU chairman, said the party's slow embrace of Paul supporters reminded him of how Republicans were reluctant to welcome the evangelicals who followed Pat Robertson into the political fray during his 1988 presidential bid. In one instance, Mr. Keene recalled, a national committeeman likened attending a Robertson campaign meeting to "the bar scene in 'Star Wars.' "
"Party leaders, like the leader of any club, love to have your dues, or your vote in this case, but they really don't want you hanging around voting for the offices or the leadership," Mr. Keene said. "[Evangelicals] came in, they were attracted by Pat Robertson, who couldn't get nominated, but attracted hundreds of thousands of millions of people. Some of those people went home because they were just attracted to him, as will some of the Paul people, and some of them stuck around, and today a lot of them are leaders in the party."
Polls show Mr. Paul collecting anywhere from 8 percent to 21 percent of the GOP vote and that Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is the only candidate to outperform him in a hypothetical head-to-head election matchup with President Obama. The 12-term congressman skipped the Washington CPAC gathering to campaign in Maine, where he nearly played giant killer, winning almost 36 percent of the vote and finishing second to Mr. Romney, who won 39 percent of caucus participants.
Mr. Paul's presence, though, was felt in Washington at CPAC, where he had won the last two presidential straw polls.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, his son, appeared at the event on his father's behalf and told The Washington Times that he has noticed the other GOP candidates have started being "friendlier to my father."
"What the Republican Party needs to understand about the Ron Paul people: They are new to the party, they're independents, they have youth and energy — all those things the Republican nominee is going to need," the younger Mr. Paul told The Times. "If it is someone else, they really need the Ron Paul people to have the energy to win in fall."
Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan group dedicated to youth outreach, credited the Ron Paul camp with educating "several generations" of political activists who now understand the complexities of the nomination contests — including the rules that govern how states dole out their delegates to the Republican National Convention, where Mr. Paul could, at least on paper, win the nomination on the floor.
"What will be interesting is this: On those same issues as it moves closer to a nomination fight, is there transferability of those activists on core issues that they feel strongly about, given what they see as their strongest potential threat to their values," Mr. Conway told The Times. "If in fact [Mr. Paul] doesn't make the nomination, will that same skill set and enthusiasm transfer over to another nominee? We actually think there will be strong transferability if he does not get the nomination."
Others say the jury is still out, reflecting exit polls from New Hampshire and South Carolina that showed that Paul supporters, more than the other candidates' followers, said they would not be satisfied with Mr. Romney as their nominee and would not support his presidential candidacy.
In the hallways outside the main ballroom at CPAC over the weekend, Paul supporters were talking with one another about what alternatives they have come November.
Lisa Miller, of Tea Party WDC, criticized Mr. Romney's support of universal health care in Massachusetts and said he has "a lack of familiarity" with the Constitution. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, she said, supported budgets that funded Planned Parenthood, and Newt Gingrich supported "cap-and-trade," presided over debt increases as speaker of the House and "is about the least-sincere conservative that I know."
"If the GOP is actually serious about winning, they have to show they are serious by cutting spending now, and not just Kabuki theater where they pretend they are for limited government and then they collapse," she said. "I think they are playing incompetents and idiots — in order to keep the spending going."
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