NEWTON, Iowa – Texas Rep. Ron Paul received a welcome befitting a man with a suddenly serious chance to win next week’s Iowa Republican presidential caucuses as he arrived in the state Wednesday for a final burst of campaigning.
His rivals attacked him, one by one.
If the 76-year-old libertarian-leaning conservative was bothered, he didn’t let it show. He unleashed a television commercial that hit Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. In his remarks, he lumped all his rivals into one unappealing category.
“There’s a lot of status quo politicians out there,” Paul told a crowd of a few dozen potential caucus-goers who turned out to hear him on the grounds of the Iowa Speedway. “If you pick another status quo politician nothing’s going to change.”
The audience applauded, but by day’s end, it appeared that yet another contender might be rising.
According to public and private polls, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is gaining ground in the final days of the race, yet another unpredictable turn in a fast-changing caucus campaign.
“We have the momentum,” he proclaimed.
The politicking was unending.
Two politically active pastors in Iowa’s robust evangelical conservative movement disclosed an effort to persuade either Santorum or Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to quit the race and endorse the other.
“Otherwise, like-minded people will be divided and water down their impact,” said Rev. Cary Gordon, a Sioux City minister and a leader among Iowa’s social conservatives.
There was no sign either contender was interested.
For months, Romney has remained near or at the top of public opinion surveys in Iowa, as Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rose briefly to challenge him.
Romney has bent without breaking in the face of each challenge, benefiting from his own well-funded campaign, attack advertisements funded by deep-pocketed allies and the missteps of his challengers.
Paul’s surge represents the latest threat, and in some respects, the unlikeliest, coming from a man whose views on abortion, the war in Iraq, Iran and other issues are at odds with those of most Republicans.
At the same time, his anti-government appeal appears to tap into the desire of a frustrated electorate for profound change in an era of high unemployment and an economy that has only slowly recovered from the recession.
“In the last couple of weeks I fell into Ron Paul’s camp,” said Bob Colby, of Newton, who spent 21 years in the military and is a former employee at a now-shuttered Maytag plant in town.
“I threw my hands up” in frustration, said Colby, who added that he supported Romney in the 2008 caucuses and chose Sen. John McCain over Barack Obama that fall.
In his remarks, Paul drew applause when he said, “I want to cut $1 trillion out of the budget the first year,” and eliminate deficits in three.
“The debt is unsustainable once it reaches a certain point,” he said. “My whole effort is to face up to it.”
Paul strongly suggested the United States withdraw its troops from Asia, and drew laughter from the audience when he noted Obama’s recent announcement that Marines would be deployed to Australia.
“How long do we have to stay in Korea? We’ve been there since I was in high school,” he said, making no mention of the recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the resulting uncertainty about the nuclear-armed nation.
Nor did Paul refer in his remarks to his recent statement in a campaign debate that he would not consider pre-emptive military action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
His campaign released an ad that showed pictures of Romney and Gingrich as the narrator said “serial hypocrites and flip-floppers can’t clear up the mess” in Washington. “Paul’s the one we’ve been looking for.”
His rivals weren’t nearly as reticent about discussing a nuclear Iran.
“You don’t have to vote for a candidate who will allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. Because America will be next. I mean, I’m here to say: You have a choice,” Perry told an early morning audience near Des Moines.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that the commander in chief would think it was irrelevant to have an Iranian nuclear weapon,” said Gingrich.
The former speaker has said he could not support Paul in a general election campaign, a position that Romney and Santorum disagreed with during the day.
Even so, Romney also took a poke at Paul. “One of the people running for president thinks it’s OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I don’t,” he said in response to a question from a potential caucus-goer in Muscatine.
Santorum attacked from a different angle.
Acknowledging widespread voter anger in an age of high unemployment, he said: “If you want to stick it to the man, don’t vote for Ron Paul. That’s not sticking it to anybody but the Republican Party.”
In a campaign that began months ago, Santorum stands out as the only contender who has not experienced a surge in the statewide public opinion polls. There was a hint during the day in a CNN survey as well as private polls that he might be peaking at exactly the right moment.
“We’re very, very happy with the new numbers,” he told reporters in Dubuque. “We’re seeing our numbers go up in a lot of polls.”
He’s told his recent audiences that he faces the challenge of persuading Iowa Republicans that he has a chance to win.
Santorum has campaigned extensively in the state, spending parts of more than 250 days and stopping in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Yet he has been low on funds, and while Romney, Perry and Paul have been advertising on television for weeks, Santorum began only recently.