BOONE, Iowa-Ron Paul was speaking quietly without notes when he hit his first applause line. He didn't signal the audience with emphasis or gesture or expression, but buried in his matter-of-fact tone was a promise to cut a trillion dollars the first year of his presidency. The crowd responded.
Iowans were standing shoulder-to-shoulder all around the outside edge of the packed upstairs room at a public library in Boone. At first glance, they might have seem bored with a political rally that boiled down to a low-key lecture on history, economics, and government, but they were listening intently, and they came alive at the next applause line: "I'd bring all the troops home," said the Texas congressman. "Bring 'em home."
Paul wasn't just talking about troops in Afghanistan or violent areas. He was talking about uprooting the U.S. military presence that spans 130 countries. To put it mildly, it's a policy position that sets him apart from most politicians of either party. Even as Paul stakes out a position to the right of his rivals by calling for aggressive spending cuts, his defense and foreign policy positions have prevented him from becoming a standard-bearer of the right. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh blasted Paul's foreign policy perspectives on his Friday broadcast, calling them "disastrous" after Paul said the Bush administration had "glee" over the excuse to invade Iraq following the 9/11 attacks.
In Boone, a supporter gave voice to the widespread frustration among Paul's followers, saying that both the mainstream media and the GOP establishment have dismissed the candidate's chances. Paul said the answer is to show up and pull off a Jan. 3 victory in the Iowa caucus: "Believe me, it's going to be tough on them to ignore us."
In a wildly fluctuating Republican race for the nomination, several candidates have surged and faded. By contrast, Paul is steady nationally, but riding an Iowa upswing in the final few weeks before caucus night. The Des Moines Register's poll released in early December pegged him in second at 18 percent, behind Newt Gingrich and just ahead of Mitt Romney. Several polls confirm the same top three.
Watching from the crowded doorway in Boone, Paul's state co-chairman, A.J. Spiker of Ames, was happy with the crowd, noting that four years ago, Paul's support depended too heavily on voters under age 30. The oldest candidate in the race, Paul packed out a venue at the Iowa State University campus with a student audience hours after the town hall at the library. With polls showing Paul has doubled his Iowa strength in four years, the campaign is seeing a broader cross-section of support.
"[The economy] is starting to hit people's pocketbooks," Spiker said. "The economy's the biggest moral issue of the day. Families are struggling."
Couching Paul's agenda in moral terms reflects a tactical understanding of his need to cut into Iowa's social conservative caucus-goers. These are the Christian conservatives that lifted Mike Huckabee to a strong plurality in Iowa four years ago. That support is divided among several candidates in this election, and Paul is seeking to get his share of their support. Unlike Romney, Paul showed up at forums in October and November organized by social conservatives. He also couched his pro-life sentiments on his experiences as a medical doctor, and touched on his Lutheran faith. Although some of Iowa's evangelical leaders had then ruled out Paul for an endorsement, based on the candidate's belief that same-sex marriage is a 10th Amendment issue that should be left to the states, he has some support from Christian conservatives.
"He has conservative Christian values that agree with the Founding Fathers," said Nathan Wallace, 28, an evangelical Christian from Davenport, who added that the "debt-ridden" state of the country is clearly contrary to biblical teaching.
Another Christian voter, James Bowery, 61, first learned of Paul in 2007 and became an enthusiastic backer because of the Texas congressman's defense of liberty. "Look at this man's record, his integrity," Bowery said. "He's always honored his oath to support the Constitution."
Drew Ivers, Paul's state chairman, is a veteran of past upstart campaigns in Iowa of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. He insisted that Paul is "becoming better known as a good Christian man among evangelicals."
Knowing the danger of high expectations is Iowa, Ivers shrugged off recent comments from Iowa insiders that Paul has the top organization for caucus night, saying that it is likely an attempt to set up the spin when the caucus results are known.
It seems inarguable though that Paul may have an organizational advantage among the top three, since Romney's campaign was late to commit to the state and Gingrich only recently found his financial footing and rehired a couple of veteran Iowa campaigners. Dropping by Paul's combined state/Polk County office in Ankeny in December, I found 10 younger adults at work there. And as Wallace pointed out, Paul's backers have an enthusiasm level that makes them highly likely to show up on caucus night.
Supporters are as likely to refer to their candidate as "Dr. Paul" as they are "Congressman Paul." He showed up in Boone with a SUV and a white minivan, instead of the decorated bus that other campaigns have chosen. Unassuming in demeanor, he has been combative throughout on his deep policy differences with the rest of the GOP field. In debates in the summer and early fall, before Paul's Iowa poll numbers changed the focus, he was often positioned near the outward edges of the row of eight candidates. Paul and Rick Santorum, a hawk on foreign and defense policy, tangled several times while the then-frontrunners focused on each other.
Now finally part of the discussion, Paul has entered the ad war that is rapidly heating up on Iowa's airwaves, with a message calling for deep spending cuts and touting the authenticity of his record, while another blasts the "serial hypocrisy" of the front-running Gingrich.
Stepping to the podium in Boone, David Fischer told the Iowa audience they have a chance to vault Paul into contention in other states: "Let's help Ron Paul magnify this message for Americans to hear."