As long as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich eloquently point this out to the folks in South Carolina and Florida, Ron Paul’s influence in this GOP presidential race will likely swoon.
The stump speeches to rein in the federal debt are words spoken by a “peculiar” man from among the crowd of 435 long before it was championed by the Speaker of the House and popular freshmen congressmen.
Yet, for all of the kudos that Congressman Ron Paul gets for bringing the mainstream up to speed on financial issues he’s advanced for years now, once voters get a chance to hear his other positions – on drug use in America and on foreign policy, for example – the GOP candidate falls from the ranks of serious contenders into the realm of a niche.
And as long as the former Senator from Pittsburgh and the former Speaker of the House running for president continue to remind voters of these radical differences on key voting issues, Libertarian Ron Paul will never stand a viable chance of being much more than the third-strongest contender in the Republican field, regardless of how long he stays in the race.
Those that point to the results in Iowa and New Hampshire as proof that Paul has enough cache among the conservative base to be the Republican “ABR” (“Anybody But Romney”) candidate in 2012 overlook the niche voting patterns that both states’ independently-minded residents famously promote. Early-primary states that brag exclusively of their ultra-right wing conservative nature or their decidedly-moderate stances do not – and will not – have the same gravitas going into the teeth of the primary schedule as others.
South Carolina, a state that proudly boasts of its ability to select Republican presidential leaders, will provide ample pushback on Ron Paul positions perceived as either detached or zany. The GOP in both states will soon provide the litmus test for the Republican candidates that will re-calibrate primary voters’ vision for the 2012 race, particularly South Carolina. Its blend of Christian conservatives, actual racial diversity, and presidential tradition will be plenty to make the Palmetto State the Armageddon both candidates and pundits believe it will be for the GOP race.
That makes sense. As long as the two former Republican thought leaders from the 1990s can convince potential voters that they have both the track record of conservatism and the ability to be effective at governing, both Gingrich and Santorum will use the campaign trail effectively. Alll they must do is use the debate stages over the next week to constantly inform and remind Americans that Mr. Paul has become infamous for fringe positions and legislative isolation during his tenure in Congress. Recent polls show that the field is ripe for this type of re-calibration on Mr. Paul. This is why, unlike 2011 presidential debates where Mr. Paul was allowed to pontificate with some immunity to the applause of his passionate support base, Mr. Santorum (and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Gingrich) made it a point to label Mr. Paul the “L” word (not the one found on Showtime, mind you) repeatedly during the January 7 debate in New Hampshire. They will continue to do so in South Carolina and Florida.
The only shot that the “ABR” candidate has in beating the establishment choice in Mr. Romney will be to quickly banish Mr. Paul to the fringes of the 2012 Republican delegation as quickly as possible. This would allow more time for the more conservative base to cozy-up in a collective movement against Romney behind one person.
Mr. Paul often makes it easy for them to make that transition. With positions that question the worthiness of promoting civil rights over Jim Crow laws when contrasted against owners’ property rights, Ron Paul’s candidacy looks very much like an unacceptable choice for the 2012 White House, even when compared to some of the questionable comments on the disadvantaged from Gingrich and Santorum. The sooner that Gingrich and Santorum can finally convince primary voters of this, the better for their chances.
However, both Santorum and Gingrich – and, subsequently, South Carolina and Florida Republicans – better use the next few weeks to convince voters (some of whom are not Republicans) that Ron Paul is not a true Republican like one of them … before it becomes too late. Like other big-eared political foes from the past, Republicans could feel heartburn from a fellow conservative – and another one from Texas, no less. Like 1992, this trend of flirting with unwinnable, fringe conservative bases – if it continues in the voting booths of South Carolina and Florida – could easily provide enough problems to splinter conservative votes and create a winner out of an unwanted candidate.
The aftermath of the Clinton-Bush race of 1992 with Ross Perot and the Obama-McCain race of 2008 with choosing McCain (through attrition) and VP choice Palin (in desperation) was evidence to Republicans that the success of Libertarian Paul in this field is enough to damage their collective chances in the fall. Which is why Santorum and Gingrich will continue hammering home the disparities through labels.
Both glass ceiling Republican presidential candidates – Mr. Romney with his 30% ceiling that has been there since 2008 and Mr. Paul with his Libertarian ceiling that pins him in at 20% – are enough of a collective force to box in Santorum and Gingrich as nice footnotes to America history if they are not overcome as opponents throughout the rest of January. If Santorum and Gingrich can effectively paint the current congressman as a Libertarian and the former governor as a RINO (“Republican In Name Only”), each may have a chance to pull off a miracle win as the conservative Republican choice in either South Carolina or Florida. Without doing so, neither have a prayer of winning – even despite courting the finest conservative Christians in the Southeast.
Lenny McAllister is a senior contributor to Politic 365 that can be found every Saturday with Democratic pundit Maria Cardona on “CNN Saturday Morning” at 10:30 AM Eastern (9:30 Central / 7:30 Pacific.) In 2012, he has been featured on CNN’s “Early Start” weekdays between 5:00 AM – 7:00 AM Eastern as well. His latest podcast “Getting Ready to Get Right” can be found on www.LMGILIVE.COM and “McAllister’s Saturday Remix” can be found exclusively on Politic365.