BOONE, Iowa-Ron Paul's Iowa state co-chairman, A.J. Spiker of Ames, is happy with what he sees. The GOP candidate is speaking quietly without notes in the packed upstairs room at a library in Boone when he hits his first applause line-over his promise to cut a trillion dollars from the federal budget the first year of his presidency. More applause erupts when the Texas congressman promises to bring "all the troops home."
Paul isn't just talking about troops in Afghanistan or other combat areas. He's talking about recalling the entire U.S. military presence spanning the globe.
Paul has staked out positions to the right of his rivals-aggressive cuts to spending, defense and foreign policy-that in the past prevented him from becoming a standard-bearer. But in a wildly fluctuating Republican race for the nomination, other candidates have surged and faded while Paul has held steady nationwide.
In Iowa he is riding an upswing in the final weeks before caucus night on Jan. 3. 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. An Iowa victory-or even second place-will make it hard for mainstream media and the GOP establishment to ignore a man many have seen as a fringe candidate.
Four years ago, Paul's support depended too heavily on voters under age 30, says Spiker. The oldest candidate in the race, Paul packed out the venue at the Iowa State University campus with a student audience hours after the Boone town hall. But polls show Paul has doubled his Iowa strength in four years, and the campaign sees a broader cross-section of support.
"[The economy] is starting to hit people's pocket books," Spiker says. "The economy's the biggest moral issue of the day. Families are struggling."
Putting the agenda in moral terms draws Iowa's social conservative caucus-goers, the same conservatives who lifted Mike Huckabee to a strong plurality in Iowa four years ago. For 2012 that support is divided among several candidates, but Paul sees them as crucial to a strong showing. Paul frames his pro-life sentiments around his experiences as a medical doctor (his official biography says he's delivered 4,000 babies), and touches frequently on his Lutheran ties. Although some of Iowa's evangelical leaders have ruled out endorsing Paul-based on the candidate's belief that gay marriage is a Tenth Amendment issue that should be left to the states-the longtime lawmaker has won some formal support from Christian conservatives this time around.
Drew Ivers, Paul's state chairman, is a veteran of past Iowa upstart campaigns like those of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. He insists Paul is "becoming better known as a good Christian man among evangelicals."
But Ivers knows the danger of high expectations, so he shrugs off recent comments from Iowa insiders that Paul has the best prepped organization heading into caucus night. That's an attempt to set up the spin once caucus results are known, he says. But it seems inarguable that Paul may have an organizational advantage: 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 office in December, 10 younger adults were at work. And Paul's backers have an enthusiasm level that makes them more likely than most to show up on a wintry Iowa caucus night.