Ron Paul is wacky, won't win the Republican nomination and must be giving Republican leaders a splitting headache.
It's not so much that the Houston-area congressman opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or that he believes the Civil War was a waste and that slavery could have been ended by buying slaves and setting them free. Wouldn't that have been a bailout for slave owners?
Nor is it that Paul wants to return to the gold standard, abolish the Federal Reserve, end support for Israel, pull troops out of South Korea, and doesn't mind if Iran develops nukes. Any one of those stands would be enough to raise an eyebrow. Combined, they're beyond weird.
Despite all that, Paul won't go away any time soon. Although his ideas hearken to an era that is a figment of his imagination, he reflects these Tea Party-Occupy times when angry people from the left and right seem prepared to try radically new politics.
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Four years ago, energetic outsiders entered politics by embracing Paul's politics and raised a ton of money for him in innovative ways. If anything, his support is stronger this time.
Polls point to the possibility that Paul could eke out a win in the Iowa caucus on Tuesday, though in the end, I suspect caucus-goers will come to their senses. But that won't be the end of Paul's candidacy.
Second-tier candidates will drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire's primary the following week. But Paul's organization could carry him, perhaps even to the June primary in California, where he maintains a significant base of support.
Paul won California Republican Party's straw poll at the September convention in Los Angeles and has raised more money for his candidacy from California, $792,000, than any other state.
Coinciding with his rise in the polls, Republicans have gone about trying to muddy him up. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for one, aired an Internet ad quoting Paul's bizarre newsletter, while a fast-growing Twitter feed, RP_Newsletter, took to reprinting rantings from the newsletter, which circulated through the early 1990s.
"I have unmasked the plot for world government, world money and world central banking," reads one tweet from his newsletter.
"If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet of foot they can be," reads another.
And this racist line, written after the 1992 riot in Los Angeles, "Order was only restored in LA when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks."
Paul explains it away by claiming he didn't know about the passages. But there is no good answer. Either he wrote and approved the newsletters, which went out under his name, or he had no clue what was in the newsletters, which went out under his name. It's bad either way.
Paul's supporters seem unfazed.
"They can play their stinking games," said Chris Rufer, a Libertarian who runs a tomato packing company in the Sacramento region and donated $2,500 to Paul.
As they rip Paul, Republicans should be mindful of the Paulistas. Although he says he won't mount an independent candidacy if (when) he fails to secure the GOP nomination, there is nothing to stop him or, for that matter, his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., from going rogue.
An independent candidacy could be easier to wage in 2012 than ever before, thanks to Americans Elect, the well-funded organization that is securing space on ballots in all 50 states for a third major presidential candidate. Its concept of using the Internet to nominate a candidate is tailor-made for Paul's well-organized and intense supporters.
"There is absolutely nothing to preclude him from running," Americans Elect spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel said in an email.
Shawn Steel is a former California Republican Party chairman, who voted for Paul when he was Libertarian presidential candidate in 1988. Steel also recalls Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992, and how it helped elect Bill Clinton. He assumes that an independent Paul candidacy could help re-elect Barack Obama.
"I'm desperately focused on keeping Ron Paul happy and in our party," said Steel, who is on the committee that drafts the Republican Party's platform.
Not to say Steel supports Paul. Paul's foreign policy view "is one of the strangest things I've ever seen in politics," and his claim that the United States is imperialist is "cockeyed" and "destructive," Steel said.
But Steel also notes, in only a slight exaggeration, that when Paul's supporters are in a room, they tend to lower the average age of Republican voters by 20 years.
"We need to keep them. It is called coalition building. We need all sizes and shapes," Steel said.
Paul shouldn't win in Iowa on Tuesday and probably won't. If he does pull off a victory, however, it would illustrate how far the GOP has veered beyond the mainstream. That could only help Obama. Therein lays the Republican Party's dilemma. To beat Obama, the GOP likely will need Paul, wacky though he is, and his supporters.