- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Wonder Ann is a big Ron Paul supporter - so much so that during his town-hall meeting here Tuesday she urged him to consider ditching the GOP and running as an independent if he doesn’t win the Republican presidential nomination.

The only problem? She won’t be able to vote for him either way. She says she’s not a Republican or a Democrat, no longer votes in elections, and thinks registering would compromise her privacy and make her a “ward of the state.”

Her reasoning may be unique, but her case is not. Mr. Paul has built a movement based on voters just like her, who reject political parties but desperately want to find space for their voices to be heard within the political process.

Mr. Paul is the wild card in this race, and so far, those dedicated supporters have been strong enough to power him to a third-place showing in Iowa and a second-place showing in New Hampshire. That may also work in South Carolina, where the primary is also open to non-Republicans.

But as the calendar deepens, Mr. Paul’s support will be tested - not only to see if he can continue to attract enough voters to extend his campaign into the later contests, but also to see if his backers are willing to work within the Republican Party to cause the kind of change Mr. Paul preaches.

Mr. Paul, a 12-term congressman from Texas making his third bid for president, has never risen so high. He’s well organized and well funded, and for the first time he’s also well under attack by opponents who sense he may just be dangerous to their electoral prospects.

He says it’s obvious what’s different this time.

“This message is resonating now,” Mr. Paul told supporters. “The country is different, and the world is different. And they’re starting to wake up and starting to realize those things that we had talked about for so long and we were so much aware of - that we have a messy financial system, a messy banking system, we had these bubbles forming - now everybody knows about it.”

His campaign is not shy about highlighting his prescience. It is flooding Internet users in South Carolina with ads proclaiming his prophecies: “In 2012 there was only one presidential candidate who predicted the economic collapse,” says one ad, while another shows speeches of his warnings dating back to 1988 and says he “has been right for decades.”

Paul power

Those prophecies have gained him a devoted base of fans, many of whom went searching for answers - often online - and found Mr. Paul at the end of a Google search.

That’s what happened to Mark Cox, an Air Force veteran who found himself watching a video online several years ago about the Federal Reserve. Concerned about the country’s monetary policy, he looked around to see what people were saying, and stumbled across Rep. Ron Paul.

“He was there; he was the answer,” said Mr. Cox, another voter who does not belong to the GOP, at a rally in Spartanburg, sitting with his mother, whom he converted to a Paul devotee.

James W. Ceaser, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Paul is as much about his ideology as he is about being a candidate himself - and to that extent he’s already accomplished something.

“He’s run before as a libertarian in the party. He’s trying to bring mainstream respectability to this movement, and he’s succeeded. Maybe not full respectability, because in some ways he’s tarnished it, too,” said Mr. Ceaser, pointing to Mr. Paul’s foreign-policy views. “But he’s shown it has more support than anyone previously thought. He’s shown it’s a force to be reckoned with.”

That raises the question of how much of Mr. Paul’s support is because of the candidate, and how much stems from the message and could be transferable - say to former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson, who fled the GOP’s primary last month to run for the Libertarian Party’s nomination instead.

“There’s clearly a personal element. Part of it comes from prophecy, but part of it is a recognition this is the guy that took this from Nowheresville to Somewheresville,” he said. “He’s carried the water, and that counts for something in any political venture.”

Dangerous

Nothing gets a Paul crowd going more than when he tells them they’re dangerous. The attack, leveled against him in Iowa after he questioned whether the U.S. should prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, is now a badge of honor for Mr. Paul, and he draws roars of approval from supporters when he mentions it on the campaign trail.

The only problem is that the attacks are resonating with many in the party, and they could help derail his iconoclastic bid to win the Republicans’ presidential nomination or, maybe just as important to him, to reshape the GOP in his more libertarian image.

The most recent Washington Times/JZ Analytics Poll of likely primary voters nationwide found 37 percent of them said Mr. Paul is “dangerous to our nation’s security.” That’s nearly three times higher than the next highest candidate, Newt Gingrich, at 13 percent.

No other candidate’s voters feel as much under siege.

“First, they ignore you, and we know how that feels. Then they attack you - call us names, attack us. But then we win,” said Dr. Mike Vasovski, Mr. Paul’s campaign chairman in South Carolina.

Mr. Paul scored a third-place showing in Iowa’s caucuses and notched a surprise second place in New Hampshire’s primary. Together, he has won more than 82,000 votes, good for second place behind Mr. Romney, nearly 30,000 votes ahead of the next-closest competitor, Rick Santorum.

He’s also collected nearly three times the number of votes he won in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008.

To be certain, Mr. Paul wins over many regular GOP voters who feel left behind by social conservatives or war hawks, or who have rebelled against the big spending of George W. Bush’s time in office.

The question is, how deep into those regular Republican voters can he drill.

South Carolina will be a major test. His 2008 campaign won just 16,154 votes, which was fewer than his New Hampshire showing even though the electorate was twice as big. And he is polling at 14 percent in the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls, good for third.

His operation here feels different than in the other states.

Mr. Paul’s headquarters in Columbia, the capital, is surprisingly understated. For a man who usually wins the yard-sign wars, this office has only a few signs in the yard out front - far fewer than Mr. Romney’s headquarters just a 10-minute drive away.

But that’s true statewide. Paul signs are uncommon, as signs from Mr. Gingrich dot the kinds of intersections and country lanes Mr. Paul had sewn up in Iowa and New Hampshire.

During a visit Monday, his staff and volunteers were wary of talking to the press.

“I don’t know anything. I’m not here,” one man repeatedly said in response to questions about a phone bank taking place behind a red curtain in the back room.

For his part, Mr. Paul bristles at calls for him to drop out for fear of damaging the party’s eventual nominee, which most pundits feel will be Mr. Romney.

“He’s not going to win the nomination Saturday. Why should everyone walk away?” Mr. Paul said. “I think I might just continue to talk about cutting a trillion dollars of spending.”

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