COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- If Ron Paul finishes first in Tuesday's caucuses in Iowa, it won't just be a speed bump in Mitt Romney's path to the GOP presidential nomination. It'll also be a powerful statement about the last Republican president. In a speech in a jam-packed auditorium here last night, Paul laid out a platform that's at odds with virtually every policy, other than tax cuts, that George W. Bush pursued. The Texas congressman criticized military spending, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, the killing of US citizens abroad without trial, and even restrictions on the Internet.
In the last year, Paul hasn't changed his message, which moves seamlessly between small-government libertarianism and some strange paleoconservative tropes. (The gold standard again?) This time, the field is just as crowded, but Paul is polling far better now than in late December of 2007. Rhetorically, it helps Paul that President Obama has continued, even extended, anti-terror policies that he inherited; Paul's riff on targeted assassination calls out Obama, not Bush. Yet the bottom line is that Republican voters are now free to cut Bush's policies loose without repudiating a sitting president of their own party.
Obviously, not all will. At least in his "town hall" in Council Bluffs last night, the Texas congressman didn't engage the question of why an undecided GOP voter who supported Bush should vote for Ron Paul now. (He didn't take questions, which makes one wonder what he means by "town hall.") It's also noteworthy that 4 in 10 likely caucus-goers deem Paul "unacceptable." Yet there may be plenty of other reasons for that -- the strange rhetoric about Fort Knox, his fixation on the Federal Reserve, and a stance on drug issues that puts him far to the left of Obama. What's clear is that some GOP voters are rethinking issues that were off the table four years ago.