Ron Paul: The spoiler?


SPARTANBURG, S.C. — What Ron Paul’s fans lack in numbers they more than make up for in enthusiasm.

At a town-hall meeting here on Tuesday, Paul addressed some 250 supporters who kept leaping to their feet with delirious applause as he delivered his standard libertarian stump speech: cut the deficit, slash the federal government, stop trying to police the world, and restore true freedom to America.

“We are forming a grand coalition that can change this country, and bring it back to the republic it deserves,” he said, to a thunderous ovation.

This is heady fare, and far more powerful than the esoteric lectures he is known for.

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It is not going to make him president. Polls show him in third place in South Carolina, with Mitt Romney solidly in the lead. Newt Gingrich is campaigning feverishly, and is gaining steadily on the heir presumptive, but odds are that Saturday will clinch the race for Romney.

Still, Paul could be the one to watch. His support base is, unlike Romney’s, fully committed to the slightly cranky, grandfatherly candidate.

“I have not yet found a flaw in him,” said Jennifer Jolley, a 30-year-old mother of two from Boiling Springs, S.C.

Jolley, like many in the room on Tuesday, cannot warm up to the frontrunner.

“I don’t see much difference between Romney and Obama,” she said. Asked if she would support Romney should he become the nominee, she grimaced.

“It depends on whether Ron Paul runs as an independent,” she said.

This is the question that haunts Paul’s eager admirers. The candidate jokingly said that he has been asked “179 times” whether he would mount a third-party bid for the presidency should he fail to gain the nomination.

“I have to say, this question is premature,” he said Tuesday, to loud cries of “Yeah! We are gonna win this thing on Saturday!” from the hall.

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Winning may be a stretch, but Paul’s growing momentum could keep Romney from the clear victory he seems to expect.

Paul’s views are so individualistic that they defy easy classification. This shows in his fans, as well.

In parts, the crowd in Spartanburg looked more like a Summer of Love reunion than a Republican rally. There were a lot of aging hippies, men with long grey ponytails and women in their 60s who looked like they should be wearing Birkenstocks. But he also attracts crowds of young people, who are clearly motivated by more than Paul’s stance on legalizing drugs.

“I am looking out for my kids’ future,” said Jolley, the young mother. “If we don’t change the way this country is going, we will destroy the economy. We are heading for World War Three.”

It is not hard to see Paul’s appeal to the Vietnam generation, however.

“Now we have a new doctrine,” he shouted. “We can and should go to war because some group might do something bad to us some day. They call it pre-emptive war. Some people call it aggression!”

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This is the kind of talk that got him roundly booed at the Republican debate Monday night; he talked about a Golden Rule in foreign policy — not doing unto others what we would not have them do unto us. This did not sit well with the conservative crowd in Myrtle Beach, but it played very well with his own supporters on Tuesday.

Paul hit hard against the Patriot Act, which, he said, “repeals the Fourth Amendment” (which protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure) and the National Defense Authorization Act, which effectively suspends habeas corpus for Americans suspected of links to terrorism.

He also condemned the runaway rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Some people want to invade or bomb Iran,” he said. “This makes no sense. They may some day have a nuclear weapon. We managed to contain the Soviet Union, which had thousands. They bankrupted themselves,” Paul pauses for effect, “when they were foolish enough to invade Afghanistan!”

The crowd ate it up.

Paul says it is “unlikely” that he will run as a third party candidate, but he does not rule it out completely.

His fans may have other ideas, however.

As she stood up to leave the hall, Jennifer Jolley smiled and said she thought Paul had done really well.

“There’s always the write-in,” she said.

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