ANKENY, IOWA — Just when you thought the tortuous, topsy-turvy 2012 campaign couldn't get any more insane, your new Iowa front-runner is ... Ron Paul?
Yes, the Texas representative is the latest candidate to top the tumultuous pack. With less than two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, he's pulling an average of 24 percent in recent polling, good for first place by a margin of 3.5 percentage points.
But in a crucial way, Paul is unlike the other candidates who have risen and fallen in Iowa voters' favor in the past several months. He hasn't surged into position all of a sudden -- he's grown his support gradually, earning supporters the hard way.
And that's why Paul's surge to first place has to be taken seriously. Alone among the candidates, he has built an organizational machine to recruit and identify caucus-goers and turn them out on Jan. 3. Paul's rise in Iowa isn't a bubble. It's a mound, and it is rock solid.
"Fortunately for us, when we get people, they tend to stay," A.J. Spiker, one of Paul's three Iowa cochairs, said in an interview in the candidate's Iowa headquarters here, just north of Des Moines.
Posted on the door are the office's hours -- 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. -- and on any given night 20-odd volunteers cram into the compact strip-mall suite, situated between a nail salon and a Quizno's, to phone-bank for Paul and identify Paul supporters.
They are building quite a list.
Paul's campaign has identified 20,000 committed supporters for the caucuses, Iowa insiders say. (For strategic reasons, the Paul campaign will not confirm or deny this figure.) If that's true and caucus turnout matches 2008's all-time high of 119,000, that's good for 17 percent; if turnout is 100,000 or lower, as most experts expect, Paul would have 20-plus percent of the vote already locked up.
Four years ago, Paul's campaign was a ragtag band of idealistic rebels. A mostly nonprofessional operation of largely self-organizing grass-roots supporters was enough to get him 10 percent of the vote in Iowa and 8 percent in New Hampshire.
This time around, it's a very different story. In Iowa especially, Paul's campaign has built a sophisticated voter turnout machine. With its intensely dedicated core of youthful followers recruiting nonparty regulars to the caucus electorate, it is reminiscent of nothing so much as Barack Obama's 2008 Iowa campaign, which was his springboard to the Democratic nomination.
"It is vastly different than four years ago," said Spiker, a realtor from Ames who sits on the state GOP Central Committee. "We have a professional staff now who know what to do and are better able to direct all the energy of the volunteers." For example, instead of standing on corners waving signs -- something Paul supporters are well known for, but which has little impact on voters -- volunteers have been put to work going door to door in their communities.
Paul's ability to bring out nontraditional caucus-goers also carries echoes of Mike Huckabee's successful 2008 Iowa campaign, which rallied many evangelical Christians who weren't previously politically active.
"If anybody's bringing new people out this time, it's Ron Paul," said Christopher Rants, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives who supports Mitt Romney. "Last time, it was Mike Huckabee."
It's become clear that Paul's push is having an effect.
"Paul is the only candidate consistently growing and going forward in every poll," said Des Moines-based pollster J. Ann Selzer. In three consecutive Des Moines Register surveys beginning in June, Paul's share of the vote has gone from 7 percent to 12 percent to 18 percent in late November. Paul took second place to Newt Gingrich's 25 percent in that poll, but Gingrich has seemed to slide in recent weeks -- thanks in part to relentless attacks on him by Paul's campaign.
"Ron Paul will finish no lower than a very close third," said Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace. "His organization is one of the best political organizations in Iowa. The only two politicians with a better organization in Iowa are [Democrat] Tom Harkin and [the GOP's Chuck] Grassley," the state's two U.S. senators.
So well accepted is this notion by now that Paul's Iowa team has sought to downplay it. Being seen as the front-runner only invites attacks on Paul's unconventional beliefs, such as legalizing drugs and allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. (And then there's Paul's racist newsletters.)
Paul's camp fears an Iowa win attributed to sheer organization will be written off as yet another purely mechanical feat of the sort his supporters specialize in. When they won the straw poll at October's Values Voter Summit by busing in supporters and buying them one-day passes, the summit's organizers complained they'd essentially stuffed the ballot box.
When Paul came within 150 votes of winning the much-scrutinized Ames Straw Poll in August, it was similarly regarded as a mostly logistical triumph. The same was true for the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, which Paul has won two years straight, and the long list of state GOP straw polls he's carried. All have been dismissed, by the media, the GOP establishment, and Paul's opponents alike, as evidence only of Paul supporters' zeal for packing meaningless, low-turnout beauty contests. The thing is, the Iowa caucuses are just like these contests, writ large.
"It would be wrong to credit Dr. Paul's success with his campaign to having the right organization," said David Fischer, another Paul Iowa cochair. "Certainly having the right organization is important to maximizing your potential. But Ron Paul's message is what's drawing people out and generating all this excitement. It's the candidate and the positions he takes."
There's plenty to be said for that argument: The rise of the tea party, of which Paul can claim to be something of an intellectual godfather, as well as Americans' general antigovernment mood, have made Paul more in step with the times than he was four years ago.
"Most politicians spend their career chasing the electorate," Fischer said. "Ron Paul is unique in that he's spent his career for decades standing in one place, and now people are coming to him."
But it is also clear that more than any other campaign, Paul's has built a traditional, brick-by-brick Iowa organization from the ground up.
In addition to all the phone-banking, canvassing and voter identification, Paul's campaign has sought to expand his organic base of support -- a combination of youthful nonconformists and the older GOP fringe of gold bugs and Birchers -- through canny outreach.
He has blanketed the state, for example, with a mailing of The Ron Paul Family Cookbook, a glossy softcover tome of recipes. It's not just a cute tactic -- it's an imitation of the "Grassley Family Cookbook," a well-known mailing from the state's beloved senior Republican senator.
"The Paul people are nothing if not smart," said Ann Trimble Ray, a Western Iowa-based GOP consultant and county party chair, who is no fan of Paul. "Chuck Grassley is the most popular Republican elected official in the state."
Paul's camp also has sought to make the candidate more attractive to Iowa evangelicals, who have traditionally been hostile to him because of his opposition to Israel aid and his libertarian resistance to state intervention in people's private lives. That is, rather than promote a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Paul would like to see the government get out of the marriage business altogether.
Paul does, however, oppose abortion rights, and his Iowa ads and speeches have leaned heavily on this fact.
At the Ames Straw Poll, he told a story about witnessing a late-term abortion in which a viable baby was dumped, crying, in a bucket. An ad currently airing in Iowa touts him as "a man of faith, committed to protecting life." Paul's campaign also has led an aggressive outreach push to Iowa churches, with the understanding that while he will never be a Huckabee-like evangelical darling, he does have the potential to make inroads with religious voters.
All of this -- the campaign infrastructure, the glossy mailers, the slick ads -- is enabled by Paul's prodigious fundraising. As of the end of September, he had raised $13 million, third most in the GOP field after Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. A one-day "moneybomb" last weekend brought in $4 million in a single day, Paul's campaign said.
Asked what was different about Paul's campaign this time versus 2008, Drew Ivers, the third Iowa campaign cochair, chuckled. "There was a discussion about that. It was called money," he said. "In 2008, we didn't do our first moneybomb until Dec. 16 , and it brought in $6 million." An amazing sum, but too late to lay the groundwork for a campaign.
Ivers said the economic crisis has helped people "break the barrier of conventional thinking" and become receptive to Paul's ideas.
"I believe we have a lot of closet Ron Paul supporters looking for permission to come out of the closet and say, 'I've always liked Ron Paul, I just never thought he could win.' "
Winning the nomination remains, in case it needs to be said, an extremely unlikely outcome for Paul. The unsavory aspects of his resume are now being pored over, from new revelations about the ugly writings he, at the very least, tolerated and profited from, to a noninterventionist foreign policy that's anathema to traditionally hawkish Republicans. Mainline Iowa Republicans who saw his TV ads and got an impression of a small-government enemy of abortion are now getting a taste of the bigger picture, and some won't like what they see.
But in a presidential season that has seen very little traditional Iowa campaign-building, Paul has seized an important advantage that makes him more than a polling anomaly.
"All year, the national media have asked me: If social conservatives stay splintered, could that help Mitt Romney?" said Deace, the radio talker. "The media made the right analysis" -- that is, that a fractured right wing would leave an opening for a fiscally focused candidate to consolidate support -- "but they chose the wrong alternative. The candidate who will benefit is Ron Paul."
"Paul has a better organization than Romney did four years ago," Deace continued. "The difference is, he has a devoted following. Romney doesn't generate deep enthusiasm. Ron Paul has deep enthusiasm."