“I’m a real candidate, but I try to keep everybody living in the real world,” Ron Paul said in an interview, alluding to the exuberance of his supporters.
Despite posting a video on his website last month conceding that he couldn’t win and indicating that he was winding down his campaign, Paul continues to be a presence in the GOP contest. He aired a radio ad before the Pennsylvania primary, is still traveling the country to appear at campaign events and, as of the end of March, had more than $5 million in the bank.
He got 16 percent of the vote Tuesday, which, combined with Mike Huckabee’s vote share, meant that more than a quarter of the voters in the Keystone State’s closed Republican primary voted for somebody other than their party’s all-but-certain nominee.
The libertarian-leaning obstetrician-turned-congressman's long-shot candidacy continues to take on a life of its own — and he admits he’s in no rush to tamp down the enthusiasm.
“There is no way I could turn it off — I went up to Penn State and had 1,500 people,” Paul observed, still seemingly amazed at his following. “So it’s just sort of going to go on.”
The question now, however, is where those die-hards who still line highway medians with Paul's road signs and flood Internet sites with comments will go with their vote in November.
Many, of course, will be watching Paul for a cue.
“I’ll be very cautious about what I do,” he said, noting his effort to encourage his supporters to get involved with their local Republican committee. “If I just endorse somebody from another party and walk away, that probably wouldn’t go over too well.”
But while keeping to the same mantra — “I have no plan, no intention to do so” — Paul is also not completely slamming the door shut on a third-party run. And, perhaps more worrisome for Republicans should they have a tight race with the eventual Democratic nominee, he’s also not ruling out supporting a third-party candidate.
Asked what he would do if his supporters approached him this fall and asked him whom to support, Paul replied, “I’ll respond when I think I should — when we know where the ducks are lining up.”
“It’s a little bit early for that. Who are the candidates going to be? Not only on top of the two parties, but who will be the bottom four or five?”
As it stands now, Paul said: “If I had to make that decision, I don’t think I’d be very enthusiastic about anybody.”
And anyway, Paul and his much-reduced campaign — it has gone from 150 employees at its peak to about 15 staffers now — have turned their focus from November to September, and namely the Republican National Convention.
“We believe that we’re going to carry about 50 pledged delegates" to the convention in St. Paul, said Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. “A lot of people are technically pledged to other candidates but are going to be there and letting everybody know that they support Ron Paul.”
That’s because even though their candidate has largely returned to his day job on Capitol Hill, his supporters are flocking in droves to county and state conventions, hoping to be elected as delegates to the convention.
While they’ll likely be stymied from having much impact on the platform, Paul supporters are hopeful their guy will secure a speaking slot — and hint that they may stage a visible distraction to McCain and the GOP if their request is not fulfilled.
“We remain hopeful and would be honored if the RNC would extend a speaking invitation,” Benton said. “If that doesn’t happn, Dr. Paul will have an off-site presence and will address supporters.”
Benton said the campaign has inquired about speaking opportunities and that those conversations are ongoing. A convention spokesman would say only that the convention program has yet to be determined.
Benton suggested that how Paul is treated by the party at the convention and beyond may dictate what becomes of the Texas congressman’s supporters in November.
“If they reach out and are accepting, a lot of people are going to stay with the Republicans. If they shun us, a lot of people will stay home, walk away or go third party,” Benton said.
Views on where Paul’s backers may ultimately wind up on Election Day are mixed.
One GOP strategist took Paul’s level of support in Pennsylvania as a cautionary sign, calling it “alarming.”
“There’s enough conservatives who are not Wilsonians or Bush-ites or who have just come to the conclusion that Iraq was a mistake,” said this conservative veteran.
Others in the party not affiliated with McCain’s campaign predict that most of Paul’s small-government followers will choose the least worst option in November.
“It depends where they fall on the libertarian spectrum,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant who is surrounded by such voters in New Hampshire. Referring to Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), who are still slugging it out for the Democratic nomination, he added: “Neither Clinton nor Obama will give them much comfort.”
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio agrees.
“A large portion of those Ron Paul supporters are anti-Bush, anti-war Republicans,” he said. “They’ll wind up back with McCain because, while they may disagree on the war or be mad at Bush, the prospect of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is more frightening.”
And, as Carney notes, there is no Paul-like third-party candidate around whom they can rally and vent their frustrations.
That may change if former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) gets the nomination of the Libertarian Party next month at its convention in Denver. But since launching an exploratory committee earlier this month, Barr has raised little money and has not drawn a fraction of the online fervor that has accompanied Paul’s bid.
And Paul doesn’t seem enticed by the prospect of transferring the passion he’s developed to his old colleague.
When reminded of Barr’s prospective run, Paul noted other minor parties with candidates in the mix. “I have a lot of friends in the Green Party,” he said. “Some [of my backers] may vote for Ralph Nader.”
Even before endorsements are pondered and convention tactics are planned, Paul has another item on his agenda: selling a book. “The Revolution: A Manifesto” is out next week, and his faithful are filing their pre-orders.
Paul describes the book as an attempt to bring into one place his unique amalgam of beliefs — from monetary policy to individual freedom to a noninterventionist foreign policy. “It’s a small book,” he said modestly of the 192-page volume.
But there has been nothing small about the outsized following that transferred an obscure backbencher from South Texas to a campus cult hero and Internet sensation.
Recalling the May of 2007 GOP debate when he and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani scrapped in South Carolina over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and national security, Paul crowed that “Giuliani made me a celebrity.”
“I’m still doing this," Paul pointed out, "and he’s paying back his debt.”