- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2011

For all the focus on front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, many Iowa Republicans say Texas Rep. Ron Paul is the one to watch in the state’s presidential nomination caucuses Jan. 3.

There’s a “very high probability that Paul will walk away with this,” said Craig Robinson, former Iowa GOP political director and founder of the popular blog TheIowaRepublican.com, to The Washington Times. “His supporters now know that, and that ramps up the energy of the organization even more.”

While political professionals argue over the value of a campaign’s organizational strength in the Iowa contest, there is general agreement that paid campaign professionals, helped by eager volunteers, still can make a difference. And that is where the libertarian Texas congressman excels.

“Overall, from what I have observed, Ron Paul has the better organization in this state,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member and president of Iowa Christian Alliance.

Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has the money and connections to field the best organization money and commitment can buy. But unlike Mr. Paul’s supporters, Mr. Romney’s staff “is aloof,” Mr. Scheffler said.

“Nobody has a more dedicated and passionate staff than Ron Paul,” Mr. Robinson said.

Campaign experts say Mr. Paul’s campaign ads are far more skillfully produced than in his past races, and he has drawn some of the biggest crowds in Iowa of any GOP candidate.

Conservative insiders say that aside from Mr. Paul, the other candidate to watch is Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator form Pennsylvania, who has been near the bottom of the pile in the GOP race.

“People shouldn’t underestimate Rick Santorum,” Mr. Scheffler said. Matt Schultz, Iowa’s secretary of state, a Mormon who endorsed Mr. Romney in 2008, has endorsed Mr. Santorum this time.

“The only dark horse that has a shot is Rick Santorum, because he has built the relationships with social activists,” Mr. Robinson said. “The second-most-passionate supporters belong to Santorum.”

The latest Public Policy Polling survey of Iowa voters puts Mr. Paul in the thick of the contest, with Mr. Gingrich at 22 percent, Mr. Paul at 21 percent, Mr. Romney at 16 percent and Michele Bachmann at 11 percent, with the rest of the field in single digits among likely GOP caucus voters.

A Rasmussen poll released Thursday had Mr. Paul in third place at 18 percent in Iowa, within striking distance of Mr. Romney (in first at 23 percent) and Mr. Gingrich (20 percent). Mr. Paul also runs a close third in polls for New Hampshire’s critical primary a week after Iowa.

Mr. Paul also may benefit as Mr. Gingrich’s surge has seemed to stall in recent days. The PPP survey released Tuesday noted that Mr. “Gingrich has dropped 5 percentage points in the last week, and he’s also seen a significant decline in his favorable/unfavorable ratings from 62 percent/31 percent to 52 percent/40 percent.”

“The attacks on him appear to be taking a heavy toll — his support with tea party voters has declined from 35 percent to 24 percent,” according to the PPP poll.

Mr. Paul, meanwhile, has seen his favorable-unfavorable numbers improve 52 percent/38 percent to 61 percent/31 percent. The Texas congressman’s emphasis on shrinking government’s role at home and abroad seems to be more consistent with the worldview of many conservative activists and much of the GOP rank and file.

“Newt Gingrich’s momentum is fading in Iowa,” said PPP President Dean Debnam. “Meanwhile, Ron Paul is building an unusual coalition of support for a Republican primary. The big question is: Will [Mr. Paul’s supporters] really turn out?”

Mr. Paul’s ads, accusing Mr. Gingrich and other rivals of hypocrisy for railing against big government while enabling its growth, may also be having an impact.

“Paul’s people simply are more energized than the rest of our voters,” said GOP campaign activist and former Hawaii GOP Chairman Willis Lee.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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