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Despite fiery base, Paul’s spark yet to spread

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / October 31, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. - Fund-raising has not been Ron Paul’s problem. Neither has galvanizing a cadre of passionate supporters. They have been called crazy, fanatics, or worse by some conservative commentators, who dismiss the fundamentalist brand of small-government libertarianism the Texas Republican has been preaching for more than three decades.

Supporters of the congressman are zealous and energetic, but the retirees, veterans, parents, and white-collar workers at his New Hampshire headquarters on a recent dreary, windswept night were not from the political fringe.

Paul’s problem is that he has received little affection from the hard-core Republican activists among Tea Partiers and religious conservatives. In their search for an alternative to Mitt Romney, the leading establishment candidate, they have flirted passionately, if briefly in some cases, with Representative Michele Bachmann, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, and Herman Cain, a former business executive.

Paul, meanwhile, has plodded along, averaging about 8.5 percent, or fifth place, in national polls, according to Real Clear Politics, and a distant third in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating contests. That loyal Paul core has helped keep conservatives from coalescing around another candidate, but it has not grown substantially.

Before the Tea Party, there was Ron Paul, keeper of the flame of minimal government, critic of the Federal Reserve System, and party scold when the federal government began rolling up big deficits under President George W. Bush.

Part of Paul’s problem is undoubtedly his unique agenda, an exotic blend based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution but crossing the boundaries of contemporary definitions of conservative and liberal. His libertarianism extends beyond fiscal matters to keeping the government out of overseas military adventures and out of individuals’ lives.

He supports a return to “sound currency’’ (the gold standard or an equivalent), abolition of the Federal Reserve System, and decriminalization of drugs, and he opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul also opposed the Patriot Act and funds for new homeland security agencies after 9/11 and has said he will not accept a congressional pension.

Paul’s views overlap with the Tea Party on many economic issues, said Brendan Steinhauser, director of grass roots for FreedomWorks, a Washington-based organization advocating free-market principles and which has lent support to the Tea Party movement.

“He’s been sounding the alarm for some time and predicted a lot of the economic troubles, the cause of them, and has been outlining solutions,’’ he said.

“What are the views that are complicating things for him? His views on foreign policy, number one,’’ Steinhauser said, noting that FreedomWorks does not take positions on foreign policy.

“Ron Paul’s positions are just such that a lot of Republicans disagree with him,’’ Steinhauser said.

Besides his opposition to the wars, Paul has also provoked sharp disagreements with Republicans with his assertions that the United States’ overseas military presence is the root of terrorist attacks and that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are understandable and not worth starting another conflict over.

He has also raised eyebrows within the party with his collaboration with liberal Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, in calling for military cuts as part of budget reductions.

Paul has staked out the most extreme budget position in a GOP field full of budget-cutting, tax-slashing candidates. His proposal calls for a $1 trillion annual cut and the elimination of five Cabinet agencies, all foreign aid, and more than 200,000 federal jobs.

The maverick 76-year-old also worked with Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a leftist-populist Democrat, and other Democrats to pass a bipartisan bill with 320 House sponsors to audit the Federal Reserve. It failed in the Senate, and Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and Tea Party favorite, filed it again early this year.

Paul blames the nation’s central bank for inflating the supply of money for the benefit of domestic and foreign banks and creating the economic bubbles that produce boom-and-bust cycles.

More than anyone, he has injected monetary policy into the national political debate, at times causing eyes to roll when he begins talking about the Austrian School, a laissez-faire theory of economics.

“Ron Paul redefines the notion of a political spectrum,’’ said Kucinich, who admires Paul’s adherence to his principles. “On two of the most central issues of our time - the role of the Federal Reserve and war - Ron Paul has defended the interests of the American people.’’

“He has great integrity; he cannot be bought,’’ Kucinich said. “It’s the reason he has such a following among young people who are earnestly searching for candidates with integrity.’’

Paul is relying on volunteers like Jon Forrester of Manchester, a 30-year-old Air Force veteran who is finishing work on an accounting degree from Southern New Hampshire University. This is his first foray into politics.

“I consider myself an average American who’s concerned about my country,’’ said Forrester, a Massachusetts native who heads the “New Hampshire Veterans for Ron Paul’’ effort. He is also worried about the future for his wife and their 10-month-old son.

In Paul, he said, he found someone to believe in. “He seems like the only one who would stand up there and tell the truth, whether it was something you wanted to hear or not,’’ Forrester said.

Kate Baker, a manager at a software company and mother of three from Manchester, is making her first substantial commitment to a presidential campaign. Describing herself as a lifelong Republican who is “really a fiscal conservative,’’ she tries to put in two nights of volunteer work a week, including the weekly “Women for Ron Paul’’ phone bank sessions she arranges.

“I’m really worried about the national debt and out-of-control government spending,’’ she said. “I worry about the effect it will have on my kids.’’

She was home-schooling one of her children when she learned that Paul had sponsored a bill in Congress to provide tax credits to families who sent their children to private schools. She did more research on other issues and was attracted to the congressman’s plain-spoken and unwavering advocacy for less government and lower taxes, she said.

Some of his devotees, such as Rachel French of Belmont, a retired telecommunications company worker who was making calls on his behalf recently, are “End the Fed’’ advocates.

Intrigued by Paul, she has studied the history of the Federal Reserve, which was created in 1913. “The banking cartel runs it,’’ she said, applauding her candidate for “having the same message forever.’’

“He’s served as a prophet or the conscience of these presidential debates, not only on the Federal Reserve but also the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,’’ said Dante J. Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “He’s stuck to his guns and now, four years after he ran in 2008, it appears that the skepticism he had about American foreign policy aims and objectives are shared by a significant segment of the Republican base.’’

In 2008, Paul finished fifth in the first two nominating contests, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, getting 10 percent and 7.7 percent of the votes, respectively. He first ran for president in 1988 as a Libertarian.

Scala does not believe that Paul has expanded his base yet in the Granite State but does think that his support remains solid.

“It may only be 10 to 15 percent of the Republican primary vote, but it’s not going to go to one of the other very conservative candidates,’’ Scala said. “It’s an eclectic mix of people who support him and will stay with him.’’

Andrew E. Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said his polls show that Paul “does best with young people and does well in the more rural parts of the state, like the North Country and the Upper Valley’’ of the Connecticut River.

Smith, who administers polls for the Globe, said focus groups have indicated that many college students are attracted to Paul “because he wants to legalize pot,’’ but that the candidate may also be benefiting across the Republican spectrum from “a resignation and tiredness about the wars.’’

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com.