Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts turned to John Sasso for help in getting a health-care bill through the state legislature, may want to solicit the Democratic operative’s advice again, this time on how to handle Ron Paul.
Even before the voting starts in Iowa on Jan. 3, Romney is a prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination, a 77.2 percent probability as of Dec. 31, according to InTrade.com, an online betting service. Texas Congressman Paul, with a committed following, is one rival who won’t go away anytime soon. The Republicans can ill afford to alienate him because he would damage their prospects on Election Day if he decides to run as a third-party candidate. At the same time, his out-of-the-mainstream views make it dangerous to embrace him too closely.
The closest analogy is to the Democrats in the 1980s, when they had to contend with Jesse Jackson, also a movement candidate with a devoted core of followers, though out of sync with major elements in the party. As the top adviser to the 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Sasso remembers how tough it was to deal with Jackson. He sees parallels to the situation the Republicans face with Paul today.
“Romney will have to show some respect as there are large numbers of Republicans who Ron Paul gives voice to,” the Democratic consultant says. “But if he overreaches he’ll look weak.”
Paul will finish in the money, conceivably even win, the Iowa caucuses. In any case, he is likely to double, if not triple, the 10 percent of the vote he got four years ago. He has the infrastructure and cash to battle on for months even if he has no chance of winning the nomination.
The unlikely elevation of a 76-year-old crank, with a few strange views and who has been rejected twice before as a presidential candidate, says a lot about the state of Republican politics.
Paul was the Tea Party -- with calls to slash the role of government, get Washington out of people’s lives and dismantle the Federal Reserve --- before there was a Tea party movement. His 2012 message is strikingly similar to the themes he campaigned on in 2008 and 1988.
“I want to balance the budget; I want to cut spending; I don’t want to go to war unless we declare the wars; I want to protect civil liberties,” he said in an interview in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Dec. 30. “What’s dangerous about that? Sounds like conservatives should agree with me on that.”
He doesn’t need polls or focus groups or consultants, though, ironically, he may have the best television commercials of any candidate so far.
He broadens his appeal, including with some conservatives, by warning against foreign entanglements, and arguing the U.S. is broke and should stop meddling in other nations’ affairs.
“These foreign interventions are none of our business,” says Stacy Hartmann, 34, an organic-vegetable farmer who attended a rally for Paul in Perry, Iowa, last week.
In a group where constancy is in short supply -- claims by Romney and Newt Gingrich to be steady conservatives aren’t serious -- Paul stands out. A brochure from Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, in which she claims to be the consistent conservative, compares specifics of her record with those of Republican candidates Romney, Gingrich and Rick Perry. She doesn’t mention Paul.
His authenticity, coupled with his antiwar stance and backing for legalizing drugs, has attracted young supporters. Measured by rallies and the number of volunteers, the septuagenarian is the closest thing to a political rock star in the Republican race.
At the same time, he carries baggage. As a leader of the right-wing libertarian movement for decades, he has attracted some disreputable followers, including racists and anti-Semites.
The evidence suggests he isn’t a bigot. Yet his unwillingness to denounce some vile former associates with extreme and hatemongering views opens him to legitimate criticism.
Also, his isolationist views on foreign policy -- he opposes all U.S. military actions, is passive about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and skeptical about U.S. relations with Israel -- are at odds with the stances of most Republican political and national security leaders.
Still, Gingrich was playing with fire when he said recently that Paul’s views are offensive to most “decent” Americans and that he should be driven from the party. If Paul should run as a third-party or libertarian candidate this year he could get 5 percent to 10 percent the vote, most of it at the expense of the Republican candidate.
He likely will go to the party’s nominating convention in Tampa with the second- or third-greatest number of delegates and will have a speaking role. Tougher will be the negotiations to keep him on board without giving him much on substance.
Paul says he’s not considering a third-party run, though in the Sioux Central interview he said he hasn’t ruled it out and cast doubt on whether he could support any of the other candidates given what he considers their tepid fiscal views and aggressive approach to foreign policy. He has less acrimonious relations with Romney, who hasn’t attacked the libertarian congressman as vehemently as some other rivals.
In 1992, after two contentious cycles with Jackson, Bill Clinton settled the issue with his “Sister Souljah” moment, when he criticized the civil rights leader for seeming to embrace the incendiary rhetoric of a rap singer.
Candidate Clinton then had some leeway to go after Jackson because of the credibility he’d already earned with black voters. That’s capital Romney doesn’t enjoy with the Paul flock.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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