Paul looks to turn big bucks into a big boost at the polls

GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) forced the national news media to look his way last month when his campaign shocked the world by raising millions of dollars in one day.

Despite that remarkable sum, however, Paul is just as big a question mark now as he was before that huge cash infusion.

Paul’s campaign made history when his supporters “money-bombed” the congressman’s campaign website, raising about $4.3 million in one day. And Paul’s supporters are reportedly saying that the next “money-bomb,” planned for the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, will raise even more than the one in November.

Add whatever that tally is to the $10.5 million Paul had raised for the quarter by the beginning of this week, and the congressman appears on paper to be someone in the driving seat as the clock ticks down.

But Paul’s money and intense online support have yielded little movement in the polls, while another candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has moved to the front without the benefit of eyebrow-raising contributions.

Paul’s campaign said Tuesday it is seeing movement in the polls, though it concedes its candidate isn’t “in the 20s.”

“We’ve seen growth. The growth pattern will continue,” Paul aide Jesse Benton said.

Paul has shown some movement, as recent polls show him at 7 percent in Iowa and at 8 percent in New Hampshire. Paul spent most of the year barely registering enough support to show up in state polls.

While those numbers might look anemic next to Huckabee’s surging digits, some analysts think Paul has the money and the enthusiastic following that could propel him to a third-place finish in Iowa, behind Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

And though the money is helpful, Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said it is the fervor Paul’s supporters show that could be his biggest asset, because their support “is an inch wide but a mile deep.”

“In some cases in Iowa that’s what you need — people willing to walk not just through snow and ice but through fire and water to show up,” Goldford said.

Goldford said that for most candidates the strategy behind the Iowa caucuses is to “increase your share of the pie at somebody else’s expense.”

“The other way to do that is to bake a bigger pie,” he said. Goldford said a candidate like Paul who enjoys support from so many outside-the-mainstream voters could bring more people into the caucus system, much like Pat Robertson did with evangelical voters when he won the state in 1988.

Benton said the campaign is dividing its focus between an early-state strategy and a 50-state strategy. The campaign has devoted eight staffers to Iowa, and Paul is doing TV and radio advertising there.

He is also running television and radio advertisements in New Hampshire, and is on the radio with ads in Nevada and South Carolina.

Nevada might represent Paul’s best opportunity for a win, as most of the GOP candidates seem to be paying only lip service to the state’s Jan. 19 caucuses.

Paul’s identity as the libertarian candidate in the race also could play well in a state that has pockets of legalized prostitution and gambling. This was evidenced most recently when Paul picked up the unsolicited support of Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof.

Benton acknowledged the campaign is hoping for a strong finish in Nevada, where it has the second biggest campaign office with the second biggest staff.

“We think we’re strong in Nevada,” Benton said. “Nevada is very important to us.”

Paul’s campaign has undergone a tremendous change since its inception. When it started in February, there were three staffers on Paul’s campaign. Now there are 80 nationwide, and Benton said they are looking to add more.

Talking to campaign staffers, it is easy to get the sense that even they are surprised by the depth of wealth they’ve achieved thanks to their online and grassroots supporters.

Benton said the campaign is budgeted only for what it has in the bank, and as for the money for the early states — “that’s budgeted and that’s spent.”

Whatever Paul’s supporters are able to accomplish with their next “money-bomb” mission is a bonus.

“We’re pretending that it’s not there. We don’t have control over that,” Benton said. He added: “This campaign will not go into debt.”

Despite the congressman’s remarkable, if not shocking, fundraising success, most analysts continue to be skeptical that he can turn it into electoral success.

Analyst Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, said Paul’s inability “to crack into double digits with any regularity” makes it difficult to believe that Paul can win big or significantly hurt any of his opponents.

“My hunch is that the votes he does get don’t really come at anyone else’s expense, they’re more fringe voters coming in from the sidelines, some driven by war, others by libertarian views, some IRS-bashing,” Cook said.

Cook added that Huckabee’s support is “driven” by religious conservatives, so he doubts there will be any overlap there.

“I don’t really think [Paul is] going to be a serious factor anywhere,” Cook said.