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Iowa straw poll could be big boost for Ron Paul

FORT WORTH, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry isn't the only Texas Republican hoping to make a big splash on the national scene Saturday.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, is making his third run for president and his campaign hopes he'll make an impressive showing at today's closely-watched Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

But for the Libertarian-leaning Paul, even winning the straw poll, as some pundits predict he will, may still feel a little like losing. If history is a guide, Paul still won't be treated as a serious threat to potential front-runners like Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry, who will throw his hat in the ring Saturday and is not on the straw poll ballot.

"If Romney or Bachmann wins tomorrow, (the national press) will make a big deal about it," predicted Dr. Robert Paul, Ron Paul's son, a doctor who lives in Fort Worth. "If my dad wins, they won't."

For several years, Ron Paul, 75, has attracted the admiration of a relatively small but incredibly passionate group of supporters from around the country. His 2008 White House run caught attention for raising tens of millions of dollars, often in one-day "money bomb" events. Yet his efforts to gain broader support have often been met with skepticism from pundits and the GOP establishment.


Whereas backers of other candidates at today's Iowa poll may be viewed as representing a larger segment of the state's Republican voters, Paul's supporters tend to be assessed under a different formula, said Mark Jones, political science chair at Rice University.

"His supporters are viewed as more ideological ... and a small diehard group instead of representative of the larger population," Jones said.

Paul's popularity has grown in the past two years. After decades of championing small government, limited spending, and a return to the gold standard, he has been lately touted in flattering magazine and television profiles as a sort of intellectual forefather of the tea party movement. In a recent CNN national telephone poll of Republican voters, Paul tied for third, trailing only Romney and Perry. Further elevating his profile, one of Paul's other sons, Rand Paul, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky last year.

"I think my dad has changed the dialogue dramatically in the last four to eight years," said Robert Paul, who has said he may run for public office in the future. "He's been telling them for 30 years. They just haven't listened."

Yet some of Paul's views remain controversial within the broader GOP.

"On social issues, moral issues, and foreign policy issues, the Republican Party expects less libertarianism and more government intervention," said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas who has studied the American presidency.

Paul's outspokenness was on full display Thursday night at the Fox News debate in Ames, in which Paul was alone among the eight candidates on stage arguing that he didn't necessarily oppose efforts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

"Why wouldn't it be natural that they might want a nuclear weapon? Internationally, they would be given more respect," said Paul. "Why should we write people off? We should at least talk to them. Reagan talked to the Soviets."


"Iran is not Iceland, Ron," former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum shot back.

Robert Paul said his father effectively stood out from the other candidates.

"They're conservative about economic ideas but they're not conservative about foreign policy," Robert Paul said.

Paul has competed in multiple Republican presidential straw polls in recent years. He campaigned hard to win a Texas one held in Fort Worth in 2007 and came in third. He's fared better at such events more recently. When Paul won the Republican Leadership Conference straw poll in New Orleans in June, it was largely met by national pundits with a collective shrug.

"He's sort of damned if he does, damned if he doesn't," Jones said. "If he wins the straw poll, that's sort of seen as a further proof of the irrelevance of the straw poll."

On Friday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a possible presidential candidate, appeared to be trying to pre-emptively dampen any momentum Paul might gain from a straw poll win today.

As Palin told the Des Moines Register, "I think that Ron Paul still has a great chance of winning the straw poll because maybe the public doesn't always understand how these straw polls work. ... It's not always the telltale sign of what the electorate is feeling."

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