COLUMBIA, S.C. — Brushing off his poor last place finish in the South Carolina primary Saturday, Republican Ron Paul promised supporters the momentum around his libertarian-leaning campaign would continue.
"This is the beginning of a long, hard job," the Texas congressman told fans gathered at a sports bar in Columbia, the state capital.
Paul vowed to battle on in states holding caucuses over the next several weeks, saying the fight now is to amass delegates rather than to notch splashy wins.
"We will be promoting the whole idea of getting more delegates, because that's the name of the game," Paul said.
But the weak fourth-place finish was still a blow to Paul, who came in a respectable second to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in New Hampshire last week and placed third in Iowa behind Romney and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. And it raised anew the question of whether he was in the race to win or simply wanted his views to gain maximum influence within the party.
Paul's advisers had long since written off the contest in South Carolina, a socially conservative state with a large military population advisers knew would be skeptical of Paul's views. Paul opposes abortion rights but has not made it a centerpiece of his message. He's also called for deep cuts to military spending as a way to reduce the debt and balance the federal budget.
Nonetheless, Paul's team had hoped he would edge Santorum in the state. He did not.
Paul's performance in South Carolina underscored the limitations of his message with Republican voters, who share many of Paul's views on cutting taxes and spending but have yet to embrace his largely isolationist foreign policy positions. He came under fire in a debate this week from GOP rivals when he questioned the U.S. mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
Paul tried to cast his showing in positive terms Saturday, saying he was a constant in a race that had seen several sharp fluctuations among the other contenders.
"Ever notice how the other candidates go up and then down? I am proud of our efforts at steady growth," Paul told supporters. The group cheered, yelling "President Paul! President Paul!"
Paul was heading home to Texas from South Carolina for a day off before flying to Tampa, Fla., Monday for a nationally televised debate on NBC. Paul was also scheduled to appear in a CNN debate Thursday but was otherwise bypassing Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31.
Advisers said Paul would probably head to Maine, whose caucuses begin Feb. 7, and then onto caucus states like Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado. His advisers have long promised to follow the model used by President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008, believing Paul's young, Internet-savvy army would turn out to caucus for him in large numbers.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy