DES MOINES, Iowa – Outside the downtown Marriott hotel where Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul spoke Monday, a protester carried a sign that suggested a Paul victory here on Tuesday won’t damage the status of the Iowa caucus as much as it will hurt the mainstream media, which has consistently written off the quirky, libertarian congressman from Texas.
Yet the longshot GOP nominee could not have chosen a more media-friendly spot for his event on the eve of the nation’s first nominating contest. The Marriott was teeming with out-of-town reporters, who, weary of three-hour road trips to Sioux City, gleefully rode the elevator to get to the event. “It’s a very effective place to get out a message,’’ quipped Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, whose presence amid the media throng also belied Paul’s status as a fringe candidate.
Trying to sidle up to the real-live voters in the carpeted meeting room meant tripping over television personalities from David Gregory to Chris Matthews to Joe Scarborough. The event was billed as a “whistle-stop’’ tour, but Harry Truman on the platform of a railroad car would never have recognized the modern-day media spectacle in “Salon D.’’
Against that backdrop, Paul argued that caucusing for him would stick it to the status quo. The latest Des Moines Register Poll, which showed him a close second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, found that voters see Paul as the most “consistent’’ candidate in a field of flip-floppers. “Tomorrow is a very important day,’’ Paul told the boisterous crowd. “Small in numbers, but a very important message. You carry a lot of weight.’’
The poll included signs that Paul may have peaked. His support declined over the course of the survey from 29 percent on the first day of polling to 16 percent on the last day. Negative views of him are also increasing as rivals have stepped up their attacks.
“There’s energy and it’s overflowing and it’s big,’’ said Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. “We’re going to win in Iowa tomorrow.’’
Paul has sought to defy the conventional wisdom that his campaign will end in Iowa by beginning to air television ads in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 10, and in South Carolina, which holds its primary on Jan. 21. The New Hampshire spot features a series of voters talking directly to the camera about Paul’s virtues. “When he says he’s going to cut a trillion dollars in the first year, I believe it,’’ says one. “The one we’ve been looking for,’’ says another.
A new Magellan Strategies poll suggests New Hampshire will be a daunting challenge, with Romney attracting 41 percent of the vote and Paul trailing at 21 percent.
The long odds haven’t stopped former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose campaign hinges on a strong showing in New Hampshire, from going after Paul. His Internet video features some of Paul’s most unorthodox remarks, set to the theme song of the old television show Twilight Zone. Paul is shown at a candidates’ debate suggesting that American military intervention in the Middle East was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another of Paul’s rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also went on the attack as he campaigned in Sioux City, in front of a much smaller media contingent. “The best I can tell, if Ron Paul becomes the president of the United States, he will bring all of our troops back home, he will bring the first fleet back out of the Persian Gulf, and we will be living back in the 1930s again,’’ Perry said.
A harsh assessment perhaps, but Paul’s supporters like his outlandish positions on issues. The most important issue facing the country? According to Paul, it’s infringement of individual liberties. “He’s exactly the shot in the arm the Republican party needs,’’ said 31-year-old David Kaniuk, who was among a number of younger voters Paul’s event. His 31-year-old friend, Dave Williams, added, “I abhor politics and this is the only candidate I’ve gotten behind. … Everyone else is so disingenuous and says only want their handlers want them to say.’’
Paul’s politically correct venue on the day before the caucus suggests he’s got handlers, too.
Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this story.