Charles Krupa, Associated Press
EXETER, N.H. — Suddenly, Ron Paul is in contention to win the Iowa caucuses and do well in the New Hampshire primary two weeks before the first votes are cast, reflecting the fluidity of the Republican presidential race as well as the inability of the party's social conservative, tea party and establishment wings to coalesce behind a favored candidate.
Yet, while the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman is earning support for his tight-fisted fiscal positions, he's so out of step with the GOP mainstream on foreign policy and some domestic issues that even his most loyal aides doubt he can use his momentum to win the Republican nomination.
"I'm very much in the Republican tradition," Paul insisted Tuesday as he campaigned in New Hampshire before heading back to Iowa on Wednesday. "Very much in the American tradition."
True or not, this much is certain: Paul is having a major impact on the campaign. His outsider persona and refusal to acquiesce to the ways of Washington — he's nicknamed "Dr. No" on Capitol Hill for voting against much legislation — has earned him a loyal following that he's leveraged to build a strong organization in Iowa and elsewhere. The respect that has long eluded him in the party may finally be coming to him.
Still, it's questionable how far he can go.
"He can get 15 to 20 percent in a multi-candidate field but, just like in 2008, when the field gets down to three candidates, voters will focus more clearly and his support will wane," predicted Michael Dennehy, an unaligned GOP operative in New Hampshire. "And, fair or not, the majority of voters will not feel comfortable with their nominee being a 76-year-old man who generally comes across as a character in 'Grumpy Old Men.'"
Paul's rise comes as the final push to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses begins and Newt Gingrich becomes the latest candidate to slide in a race where Republicans have struggled to settle on an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The ferment underscores the degree to which Republicans remain sharply divided over whether to select with a nominee seen as more capable of beating President Barack Obama or one seen more as the Democrat's ideological opposite.
In another sign of the fissures in the GOP, board members of a prominent Iowa Christian organization, the Family Leader, on Tuesday chose not to endorse anyone in the presidential race after failing to rally behind any one of the several strict social conservatives campaigning in Iowa.
Instead, the group's president, Bob Vander Plaats, and another prominent social conservative, Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, threw their personal support behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is barely registering in polls.
"We've always said, the fear would be a fragmented vote, because we have a lot of good candidates," Vander Plaats said.
Separately, the national American Family Association on Tuesday endorsed the thrice-married Gingrich, the former House speaker. Gingrich helped the group raise money last year to campaign in Iowa against the retention of state Supreme Court judges who backed a 2009 ruling to allow gay marriage.
Tea party activists, many reluctant to support Romney, also have not rallied behind an alternative. The divide has prompted some prominent tea party groups to shift from the White House campaign and focus on influencing Capitol Hill.
With prominent social conservatives and the tea party divided chiefly among Santorum, Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Paul has emerged as a leading contender in some Iowa polls, along with Romney and Gingrich. The divisions among cultural conservatives have allowed Paul to cobble together a coalition, made up of strict fiscal conservatives and independent-minded Republicans, that has grown since the fall.
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