By Jordan Fabian - 06/10/11 10:00 AM EDT
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is running a different presidential campaign in 2012 than he did in 2008, sensing that the evolving politics of the GOP could give him a better chance at building a wave of support and contending for his party’s nomination.
The last time Paul sought the presidency, he was a little-known libertarian back-bencher in Congress, largely dismissed at debates and by party insiders as nothing more than a fringe candidate.
With the experience of one presidential campaign under his belt, Paul is building a more streamlined and formal campaign apparatus that gives him a better chance of competing in key early primary states.
Paul has a better chance in New Hampshire than in Iowa, but the congressman is not counting out any early states. He told The Hill last week that his campaign is focused on all the early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Paul, who announced last month on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program that he would form an exploratory committee, disputed the notion that he is running a different kind of campaign from 2008.
Pressed on whether Hannity would have invited him on his show a few years ago, Paul responded that more people are questioning U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the role of the Federal Reserve than they were three years ago.
“During the last campaign, I knew what was happening,” Paul said last week on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“You know, they mocked me for my foreign policy and they laughed at my monetary policy,” he added. “No more. No more.”
While Republicans by and large still support the war in Afghanistan, signs of war-weariness have shown.
Last month, more than two dozen House Republicans joined Paul in voting for a Democratic amendment that would have required President Obama to submit a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and even more voted for a resolution questioning the U.S. intervention in Libya.
And unlike some GOP contenders, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Paul can claim total consistency in his opposition to the 2008 TARP bailouts, a key issue that resonates with Republican voters and Tea Party activists.
Other candidates have started to move toward Paul on some economic issues. During a major speech this week, Pawlenty said he supports ending the Fed’s dual mandate, and he has criticized the central bank for months over its efforts to stimulate the economy through quantitative easing.
In a preview of his argument against other candidates at next week’s presidential debate in New Hampshire, Paul said he is still the only candidate in the field with credibility on such issues.
The Texan has built on his name recognition from the 2008 campaign to post strong showings in several national polls. And he still enjoys fervent support from his base, especially young voters.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who supports Paul for president, told The Hill last week that he was approached by a 19-year-old named Trevor Benson during an event in his home state. With Benson donning a Paul 2012 button, the two struck up a conversation about Paul. Later, Jones had the Texan autograph photos for Benson and his friend.
For his 2012 bid, Paul is combining supporters’ enthusiasm and his ability to raise large sums of campaign cash online with a more traditional campaign structure.
In 2008 in New Hampshire, for instance, Paul relied on a loosely formed collection of county campaign activists and finished a disappointing fifth place in the first primary in the nation. This time around, when Paul stopped in New Hampshire this week, he named a state campaign chairman and field staff.
He has also reached out to Tea Party and social conservative activists in key early states at the beginning of the process in order to have a better shot of earning their support.
Paul spokesman Jesse Benton said another key difference is Paul’s improved ability to raise money early in the cycle. In 2008, Benton noted, big donations came in too late to build a full campaign staff in early states like Iowa. This year, Paul has raised more than $2 million from two one-day online “money bomb” fundraisers alone.
“This time, we are raising money early to fund the campaign we need,” he said.
But more than any other state, New Hampshire, with its strong small-government tradition, will be Paul’s proving ground.
“New Hampshire will be a critical state for him,” said Dartmouth College government professor Dean Lacy, who said Paul has a slim, but viable, chance of winning the nomination.
“Ron Paul doesn’t have to win New Hampshire, but he should hope to be a top-three finisher,” he added. “That’s the litmus test.
“He had no real formal organization in ’08 and now he is adopting a more conventional campaign structure,” Lacy said. “He is running as more of a mainstream candidate this year.”
But many still believe there is a ceiling of support for Paul and that he lacks the ability to appeal to mainstream GOP voters to capture the nomination due to his unorthodox political views.
On the day he announced his presidential campaign in Iowa, Paul said that he would not have voted for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, explaining he is not against ending segregation but the “property rights” elements in the law violate his libertarian beliefs.
Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said the same thing during his election campaign in 2010 and faced heavy criticism from his opponents, a danger Paul faces on an even larger scale in a presidential contest.
The elder Paul has also said he would not have authorized the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and voiced support for the legalization of heroin during the first GOP primary debate last month.
“He just has to shake the cranky-grandfather image,” Lacy said. “To become a more mainstream candidate, he has to soften his appeal a little bit.”
But Paul’s supporters remain unfazed.
“If he were to win the nomination, I think he would definitely have a good shot,” Jones said. “He would have a lot of momentum.”
Bob Cusack contributed to this story.