In Iowa, the "Ron Paul factor" could loom large

Republican Presidential hopeful Texas Rep. Ron Paul answers a question during a campaign event Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 at the Lawrence Community Center in Anamosa, Iowa. Brian Ray,AP Photo/The Gazette

Ron Paul
Ron Paul answers a question during a campaign event, Nov. 18, 2011 at the Lawrence Community Center in Anamosa, Iowa.
Brian Ray,AP Photo/The Gazette

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Ron Paul has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Republican presidential field: He just can't seem to get any respect.

Despite polling consistently within the top three or four candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, the libertarian-leaning congressman has not convinced most of the media and the other campaigns that he can reach beyond a dedicated group of supporters and become a serious threat to win the nomination.

But with a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, Paul is leaving an increasingly significant mark on the race.

On Wednesday, his campaign released a 2½-minute Web ad titled "Newt Gingrich: Serial Hypocrisy," which juxtaposed media commentary and Gingrich's own words to eviscerate the former House speaker.

In a campaign that has seen relatively few hard-hitting attack ads, Paul's takedown of the rising GOP front-runner was a potent reminder of Gingrich's myriad vulnerabilities and earned Paul admiration for its effectiveness.

"Wow Ron Paul. That is really well produced," tweeted Erick Erickson of the influential RedState.com. "I'm impressed." It was a reaction echoed by others who have not been Paul supporters.

At a New Hampshire campaign stop on Thursday, Paul demonstrated that he is willing to back up the tough ad with his own words: Gingrich is "a flip-flopper, so he can hardly be the alternative to Mitt Romney," he said, according to NBC News.

Paul's sharpened attacks seem designed primarily to cut into Gingrich's lead in the nation's first voting state of Iowa -- where Paul faces a do-or-die scenario.

Full CBS News coverage: Ron Paul

And the Texas congressman's prospects there indeed appear to be better, in many respects, than may be the case elsewhere: In a Bloomberg poll conducted last month, Paul was in a statistical three-way tie for the Hawkeye State lead.

He has slipped back in two subsequent polls, but Paul does enjoy one of the best organizations in the state -- which could prove particularly potent against competitors whose Iowa infrastructures are far less extensive than what has been seen in previous election cycles.

"Looking at our grass-roots activists that work really hard and door-knock and make calls, I feel pretty good about where we are," said Paul's Iowa vice chairman, A.J. Spiker. "There's a consistent message, and it's less government, and that's what the Republican Party is all about. And I'm not sure another candidate embodies that more than Ron Paul."

Among longtime observers of Iowa politics, there remains considerable concern, privately expressed, that Paul might actually win the caucuses -- a result that could make the state irrelevant in future cycles.

But Paul's nonconformist views on foreign policy and the still-engrained perception that he is unelectable threaten to hold him back, and his marginal media savvy is another potential drawback. Pressed on why he wanted to be president last month, for example, Paul refused to answer the question.

"I think he has reached his ceiling," said veteran Iowa Republican fundraiser Becky Beach. "I think he'll definitely have his core of extremely committed people, but I don't think people here think he has a real chance of going on and being the nominee and beating Obama."

Even if he does not win, Paul's impact on the outcome in Iowa will almost certainly be substantial, despite his reputation for attracting voters who would not otherwise take part in the process.

Though he had shown a willingness to attack other GOP opponents before his broadside against Gingrich, Paul has more or less left Mitt Romney alone. If the race in Iowa remains tight, Paul could become an accidental Romney ally by cutting into Gingrich's support.

But in a race that has seen as many shifting variables as this one, Paul retains the potential to surprise everyone -- especially if Iowa's particularly inclement weather is a factor on caucus night.

"If there is a snowstorm, Paul wins," said one state Republican insider.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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