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Paul tries to reap Tea Party seeds he helped nourish

Will yield seat in Congress for presidency bid

The crowded GOP field - including others with an antitax playbook - could hurt Representative Ron Paul of Texas. The crowded GOP field - including others with an antitax playbook - could hurt Representative Ron Paul of Texas. (Brian Snyder/Retuters)
By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2011

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WOLFEBORO, N.H. - Four years ago, Ron Paul’s libertarian views became divining rods for the brand of strident antigovernment activism that grew into the Tea Party movement. Now the Texas congressman is trying to make sure the energy of that phenomenon does not bypass his presidential candidacy.

Paul’s prescription for America has been consistent for three decades: shrink the federal bureaucracy, unshackle markets, cut taxes. An early oracle of bedrock Tea Party principles, Paul appears to be in a prime position to benefit from the movement’s growing influence.

“Now that there’s a shift in attitude, a country that’s getting in worse shape by the day, all of a sudden the message becomes very appropriate,’’ the 75-year-old obstetrician and 12-term representative said in an interview.

Yet obstacles have hindered Paul’s attempts to harness that momentum in New Hampshire, a state his campaign considers crucial. One major impediment is philosophical: Paul and Tea Party activists may be working from the same antitax, probusiness playbook, but when matters turn to personal rights or foreign policy, their views diverge. For many conservatives, Paul’s libertarian calls for decriminalizing marijuana and US withdrawal from such global flashpoints as Afghanistan are just too radical.

Perhaps of more concern to Paul’s campaign is a practical matter. When he ran in 2008 for the GOP nomination, he was the main proponent of stripped-down government. This time, the candidate no longer has that stage to himself.

“I think that the conservatives who might have gone with him in the past have enough other choices this time,’’ said Fran Wendelboe, a former New Hampshire state representative who is unaffiliated with any campaign.

Most GOP candidates have, to varying degrees, laid a claim to the Tea Party mantle. The early beneficiary appears to be Paul’s colleague in the House, Michele Bachmann. A recent WMUR poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, had Bachmann receiving support from 12 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters compared to 7 percent for Paul. Among voters who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, 20 percent supported Bachmann, who started a Tea Party caucus in Congress, while 7 percent supported Paul.

Asked about his strategy, Paul said he plans to “keep campaigning on what I’ve been campaigning on for 30 years.’’

Yesterday, he vowed to devote more energy on the trail, saying he will not seek reelection to his seat in the House, where he has served for most of the past 34 years. One of his first stops after the announcement will be another visit in New Hampshire, Friday and Saturday.

Unlike other candidates, who spend their time in rotary clubs, living rooms, and VFW halls, Paul has been focusing almost exclusively on business visits while in New Hampshire. He meets several dozen voters at a time at a general store or diner and talks about the need to stop bailing out corporations and stop spending so much money overseas.

He is also trying to capitalize on the debate over how to allow the government to continue to meet its debt obligations. As President Obama and congressional leaders meet this week to address spending cuts linked to the debt vote, Paul’s campaign is rolling out an advertising campaign to mobilize grass-roots opposition to any compromise that increases taxes. It is a new manifestation of his long-standing call to lower spending.

In many ways, Paul has seemed prescient. He emphasized strict adherence to the Constitution before the Tea Party made it de rigueur. He warned about the risk of a housing market collapse in 2003.

Paul “was a Tea Partier before it was cool,’’ said Lisa Gravel, a postal carrier from Manchester, N.H., and Paul supporter.

Paul, who ran for president in 1988 as a libertarian, has often focused on obscure details of monetary policy. He has advocated a return to the gold standard and believes the Federal Reserve should be dismantled because it distorts a free market by creating money and manipulating interest rates. He wants to replace income, capital gains, estate, and gas taxes with either a national sales tax or a simplified income tax with a single rate.

Such an approach resonates with some Granite Staters. “He’s more conservative,’’ said Fred Gagnon, a retiree from Eaton who supported Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, in 2008. “We’ve gone too far to the left. We need a kick in the pants to get back to center-right.’’

Yet many voters are looking elsewhere. Randy Parker, a Republican campground owner from New Boston, N.H., likes Paul’s ideas but worries he cannot beat President Obama. “We’ve got to pick a person who can get elected,’’ Parker said.

Paul’s poll numbers and fund-raising put him in line with the pack of GOP candidates behind Mitt Romney. Paul raised $4.5 million in the last fund-raising quarter, compared with $3 million at this time in 2007.

His followers still exhibit a fervor that other candidates jealously admire. There’s a fan website for the “Ron Paul ‘Revolution’ ’’ and a “Daily Paul’’ blog dedicated to “restoring constitutional government.’’

Some analysts wonder whether such devotion among a conservative clutch will have an effect in such a state as New Hampshire, where undeclared voters are expected to have an out-sized role in the GOP primary because there will be not be much of a Democratic counterpart.

Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said only a small percentage of voters in New Hampshire are Tea Party members or libertarians. Smith pointed to 2008 - Paul came in fifth in the New Hampshire primary - when asked about his chances this time around.

“He had by far on the Republican side the most enthusiastic supporters, and on college campuses he was the only Republican who had any support, but it did not translate into votes,’’ Smith said. “I don’t think there are enough libertarian-minded voters here to get him over the top.’’

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com.

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