Is Ron Paul in it to win it?

Gigi and Ken Bowman of Long Island, N.Y., hold signs in support of Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, outside a scheduled event for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at the Pinkerton Academy Saturday morning, Jan. 7, 2012, in Derry, N.H.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Ron Paul supporters
Gigi and Ken Bowman of Long Island, N.Y., hold signs in support of Rep. Ron Paul outside an event for Mitt Romney, Jan. 7, 2012, in Derry, N.H.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

NASHUA, N.H. - Is this Ron Paul's moment? Does he want it to be?

Fresh off a strong, third place victory in the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul promptly . . . took a break. The Texas congressman raised some eyebrows when he paused his campaign this week rather than carrying his momentum straight to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary on Tuesday.

To be sure, his rival Mitt Romney - former governor of neighboring state Massachusetts - has a hefty 20-point lead in New Hampshire. Still, there's potential for Paul: He's the only other candidate to break 20 percent in recent polls, and the "Live free or die" state - where independents can vote in the primary - is a natural fit for the libertarian-leaning candidate.

But while some may think Paul's time off suggests he's not serious about his campaign, it belies the fact that, aside from Romney's, Paul's campaign is the best prepared for a long nomination contest, with a large war chest and the organization to get on the ballot in states where other candidates couldn't. In New Hampshire, Paul has the support of around 30 New Hampshire state legislators, and he's campaigned in New Hampshire about as much as he has in Iowa.

And then, of course, Paul arguably has the most ardent supporters of any GOP candidate. But at times, his supporters seem to want a Paul presidency more than he does.

While other candidates have tacked their professionally-made signs into the ground across the Granite State, it's not unusual to see homemade Paul signs fluttering from highway overpasses, or Paul supporters in what appear to be homemade T-shirts. And while other candidates have been confronted by unimpressed voters - see Romney's or Rick Santorum's recent uncomfortable moments - Paul's crowds are typically enthusiastic and friendly.

When Paul showed up in Nashau on Friday, a crowd of hundreds was waiting for him, cramped in a small airplane hangar at Boire Field Airport. Buzzing with excitement, the group at times started spontaneously chanting "Ron Paul! Ron Paul!"

Ron Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, dressed casually in a turtleneck and sweater, greeted the audience. "People ask me, 'Is campaigning fun?'" he says, loosening up the crowd. In the frank and honest style both Ron and Rand are known for, he answers that question by relating a time a woman grabbed him by the head, tugging to find out whether his curly tuft of hair was real.

Perhaps it's those trying moments that prompted Paul to lay low for a few days. But after the rally on Friday, Paul told the press, "I don't know if we took a couple of days off as much as we just stuck to our plan. We had a plan we would be here our last five days."

Breaks from the campaign trail may do minimal damage, when voters can so easily learn about candidates through other means. But there's no denying that shaking a few more hands could secure a few more votes. Brett Ferrell and Ryan Hall, both 20 years old, went to Paul's Friday event without much of an opinion about the congressman. They said they could be persuaded to vote for either for Paul or Romney.

What's more, after Paul canceled an event with college students scheduled for Friday morning, it left some wondering whether Paul is running a serious campaign or simply trying to shape the dialogue within the GOP.

Paul spokesman Gary Howard dismissed that notion. "No one has campaigned harder or smarter than Dr. Paul," he said. "We have a comprehensive plan to win the delegates necessary to be the nominee and have been working that plan hard. We will be campaigning hard through Tampa and beyond."

For Paul's most ardent supporters, his candidacy certainly isn't just about making a statement.

"If we want to get our country back on track, we need a president like Paul for at least 10 years," said Ed, a Manchester resident who declined to give his last name. "It is difficult to elect a libertarian president, but I think his showing has been very impressive. It shows a lot of people are thinking about the fiscal health of the country."

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