In early 2007, Ron Paul was so obscure a political figure that the way to get in touch with him was to call his home phone. A long-time libertarian in New Jersey had given me the number, and I’d call him on occasion.

The subject was his proposed run for the presidency. I, and perhaps he, suspected it would be about as successful as his prior run. That was in 1988, when he was the Libertarian Party candidate and got one-half of one percent of the vote.

Every indication was that his campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination would end up the same way. Paul would be lost in the crowd. The other candidates would speak in sound bites as Paul patiently explained his philosophy in the monotone of a professor trying to get a point across to a not-so-bright student.

All that changed on May 15, 2007. The first big debate of the 2008 campaign was sponsored by Fox News. At first, the good doctor looked lost in a sea of blow-dried politicians. But then moderator Wendell Goler asked the question that launched a movement.

Maybe it was because he was trying to purge the field of the sole critic of the neoconservative foreign policy so beloved by the Fox crowd. Or maybe he was just looking for ratings. In any event, Goler adopted a prosecutorial tone as he asked Paul why he was the only candidate to oppose the Iraq War.

Professor Paul responded with a rather dry history lesson concering conservative opposition to foreign-policy adventurism going back to the days of Robert Taft. The timer rang.

Goler persisted.

“Congressman, you don’t think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?” he asked.

“What changed?” Paul said. He seemed honestly puzzled at the notion that the principles espoused by the Founders could be altered by a one-time event. Once he got Goler’s drift, though, he explained that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” for U.S. government meddling in the Mideast.

“They attacked us because we’ve been over there,” Paul said. “We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years.”

That sent the front-runner into a frenzy. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani demanded time to repeat the talking point around which his entire campaign was based. “That’s an extraordinary statement as someone who lived through September 11 that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq,” said Giuliani. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.”

The audience erupted in applause. Talking heads all over America started chattering about the biggest gaffe of the campaign. They pronounced the campaign over for Paul.

It was just the beginning. Paul knew something the pundits didn’t: there’s a strong strain of support in America for what traditional conservatives call “noninterventionism” and neoconservatives call “isolationism.”

Six months later I saw the result up close. On a November Saturday, Paul had scheduled a rally not far from my office at the Star-Ledger of New Jersey. My libertarian friends had told me about it, so I drove over, expecting to see the usual hundred or so hard-core anti-statists huddled around their hero.

When I got there, I was shocked. There had to be 5,000 people crowding the mall. Guys in business suits. Hipsters with nose rings. Vietnam vets wearing hats identifying their units. It was a political Woodstock. I half-expected Arlo Guthrie to get up there and proclaim, “The New York Thruway’s closed, man!”—except that the rally was being held in Philadelphia. Sandwiched between the Liberty Bell and the Federal Reserve building, Paul gave a speech that reflected on each symbol.

Something big was happening here, but it didn’t make the news. I discovered why at a press conference scheduled to take place in a nearby Holiday Inn. When I showed up at the appointed time, I saw a podium and microphone on one end and coffee and donuts on the other. But there was no press, just me and a couple guys from weekly newspapers out in the sticks. There was a TV station just down the street. A few blocks away was the building that houses the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. But no reporters had shown up, and no one on the staff seemed to have heard about the press conference they’d scheduled.

I figured I’d just get a few quotes from the candidate on my own. But when I started to interview Paul, I was rudely interrupted by a campaign staffer who told me the media would have to clear out because campaign contributors were coming in.

I’ve been covering politics since 1975, and this was the single most amateurish stunt I’d seen. It’s standard practice for any campaign to list events in the Associated Press Daybook, a compendium of events that editors rely on when assigning reporters. Most campaigns also send out emails to the usual suspects in the media. The Paul staffers did neither.

When I wrote about it afterward, I got emails from Paul supporters in places like New Hampshire who had similar stories of staff incompetence. The problem wasn’t lack of funds. The candidate’s young supporters had begun those “money bombs” by then. They raised $4 million in just one day in early November. But in an interview with Roll Call that week, Paul said he had no plans to hire professional consultants.

Paul was, in other words, going to run a third-party campaign in a major-party primary. The results were what you’d expect. As the crucial New Hampshire primary approached, the Paul campaign was doing a miserable job getting its message across. Paul’s TV commercials had him stressing his opposition to the war, which according to polls won him the support of the most liberal of the Republican primary voters. But he did little to stress the voting record that consistently ranked him among the most conservative of congressmen.

Meanwhile the campaign continued to keep events off the all-important Daybook, thus overlooking the most important aspect of any campaign event. Even the most successful events attract a mere handful of voters. The idea is to leverage the event with a sound bite or photo op that reaches tens of thousands. That idea was lost on his staff.

Meanwhile Giuliani was plummeting in the polls. Joe Biden quipped that a typical Giuliani sentence was “a noun, a verb and 9/11.” That pretty much summed up the staleness of not just Giuliani’s campaign but of the entire mainstream GOP. The candidates seemed to believe that if they repeated the word “terrorism” enough, the voters would forget about an economy that was worsening by the month.

That version of the Republican Party blew up with the housing bubble and John McCain’s loss to Barack Obama. What takes its place remains to be seen. Perhaps we got a preview at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February.

CPAC represents the traditional tryout for presidential wannabes, and this year didn’t disappoint. Most of the usual suspects were there. They fell into two groups. The mainstream candidates—Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, and the like—devoted their speeches to Obama-bashing, always good for applause. They promised balanced budgets without mentioning just what they would cut.

That was left to Paul and his son Rand, also a doctor and also a “constitutional conservative,” the label the two are employing these days. I don’t know who thought that term up, but it’s a lot more marketable than “libertarian.” Say “libertarian” to the typical American, and he’ll ask why you favor legalizing pot and prostitution.

A constitutional conservative, by comparison, sounds like someone ready to take on weightier issues, such as how to address the deficits created by the Bush and Obama administrations. And the new U.S. Senator from Kentucky did so when he got up before an audience made up mostly of young people who’d lined the halls to get into his speech.

For them, the red-meat issue was not war but the question of all the bills that the baby-boom generation will be handing the younger generation. The senator didn’t disappoint. He blasted the cuts proposed by Republicans in Congress as insignificant, saying they would still permit a $3 trillion growth in the deficit over the next five years.

To balance the budget, he said, you have to go after the big-ticket items: entitlements and military spending. “You cannot say that the doubling of the military budget in last 10 years has all been spent wisely and there’s not any waste in it,” Paul said. The round of applause he got seemed to surprise even him.

The kids were still in the room when outgoing American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene committed what was either a huge blunder or a calculated move to embarrass the Paul supporters, depending on who you asked. The applause for Rand Paul had barely ended when Keene brought out Donald Rumsfeld to receive a “Defender of the Constitution” award.

That would be an odd choice under the best of circumstances, given the fact that the people Rumsfeld liberated in Iraq repaid the favor by killing 5,000 or so American soldiers. Before this audience, it was incendiary, especially when Dick Cheney walked out to engage in what was supposed to have been some happy talk with Rumsfeld. One kid yelled “war criminal.” Another yelled “draft dodger”—just before Cheney went into an anecdote about some interaction he and Rummy had back in Washington back in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.

Nothing like this had happened at CPAC before, and the Beltway pundits couldn’t figure out whether this was an aberration or a trend. Even at this late date, the mainstream media haven’t figured out the difference between conservatives and neocons. As for the potential presidential candidates not named Paul, they’re doing their best to ignore it. Once the debates get going, though, the question of whether it’s really a good idea to have our military literally all over the map will be brought up by “the liberty candidate.”

“The liberty candidate” is the guy both Pauls urged the CPAC crowd to support in the GOP primary. But just who will that be? I put in a call to Jesse Benton to find out. Benton is Ron Raul’s political director (and son-in-law). He was also directed Rand Paul’s successful 2010 Senate campaign. So he’s in a unique position to know which Paul will be running.

“Ron’s deliberating and we can see him making his decision in the next month to six weeks, early summer at the latest,” said Benton of the elder Paul, who will turn 76 in August. If Ron doesn’t run, Rand will “consider his options,” said Benton.

Benton worked on the 2008 campaign, and he admits its shortcomings. “Ron kind of had to go to battle with the army he had,” said Benton. “The team was all people who were very hard-working, but it was a team you could get when expected to be a 2-3 percenter.”

Those “money bombs” were great, he recalled, but much of the money came in on Dec. 16, 2007—“Tea Party Day” in Massachusetts. The $6 million raised that day set records. But the money arrived less than three weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Benton recalls. Too late for television advertising. “If Ron were to run again he would put a big focus on raising the money up front,” said Benton.

TAC June 2011 issueIf Ron, or Rand, were to run, he’d have a ready audience in all of those tea-party people whose movement got its start with that money bomb. The tea-party types actually like listening to lectures about fiscal responsibility. Early in the 2008 campaign, Paul seemed to bore even his base with all that talk about the Federal Reserve. It sounded esoteric.

Once the financial bubble burst, though, monetary policy was a hot topic among conservatives. Throw in trillion-dollar deficits and the Fed’s policy of “quantitative easing” in the years since, and suddenly every candidate’s sounding like that guy who was denouncing the Fed in Philly four years ago.

And consider this quote on foreign policy: “We shouldn’t go to war so carelessly. When we do, the wars don’t end.”

Did Haley Barbour say that just the other day? Probably. But Ron said it first, in that Fox News debate four years ago when the Republicans were ready to run him out of town on a rail. That same rail will be a crowded one this year. And I for one can’t wait to see who is on it.

Paul Mulshine is an opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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