WASHINGTON — Is Republican presidential contender Ron Paul destined to be remembered for saying that terrorists attacked the United States on Sept 11, 2001 “because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years”?
It was a critical moment in Tuesday night’s GOP presidential candidates’ debate in South Carolina.
Paul gave former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani the opportunity to rebuke him and dominate the news coverage of the event.
But Paul’s passionate supporters don’t think Giuliani was the winner — and their man the loser — in that skirmish.
In fact, Paul said Thursday that in the hours immediately after Tuesday night’s debate, supportive phone calls to his campaign and donations via his web site soared.
“I was amazed. People donate money in the middle of the night, so all that night there was money coming into our website,” Paul said in an interview with MSNBC.com.
Every four years, under-funded and relatively little-known presidential hopefuls such as Paul enter the race for their party’s nomination. You may recall some other long-shot contenders of past elections:
- Former Delaware governor Pierre “Pete” du Pont IV in 1988, who advocated allowing younger workers to set up voluntary retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security.
- South Carolina Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings in 1984, whose broad Southern accent led Sen. Ted Kennedy to call him “the first non-English speaking candidate for president.”
- Virtuoso orator Allan Keyes in 2000 who thrilled conservative audiences by demanding abolition of the income tax and repeal of the 16th Amendment.
'Pierre... a nutty idea'
Sometimes these candidates serve as unwitting foils for their party’s frontrunners.
During a 1987 debate among the six GOP contenders, Vice President George Bush snidely pointed out du Pont’s aristocratic heritage by criticizing du Pont’s proposal for private retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security.
"Pierre, let me help you on some of this,” Bush snapped. “I think it's a nutty idea to fool around with the Social Security system and run the risk of the people who've been saving all their lives.”
The poll numbers of contenders such as du Pont or Paul in the early stage of the nomination contest suggest they have no chance to win.
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But then again, they just might. The best case of a seemingly out-of-the-running candidate who surprised everyone and became the front-runner was Howard Dean four years ago.
In early 2003 the former Vermont governor keenly sensed the frustration Democrats felt about the Iraq war and he was exactly the right candidate for that moment.
Apart from their function as the idiosyncratic “character actors” of presidential debates, do these second-tier candidates have an impact on their party’s nominees and their policies?
Varied messages and motives
If they have little chance of sitting in the Oval Office, why do they run? In the case of this year’s crop of GOP long-shot contenders, the motives and messages vary:
- Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado: Long the leading voice in his party for keeping out illegal immigrants, Tancredo has spread his immigration message through his political action committee, trying to defeat fellow Republican Rep. Chris Cannon, in 2004, for example. A presidential bid is a natural extension of Tancredo’s advocacy and his presence in debates will ensure that the pressure is on Giuliani and McCain on the immigration issue.
- Rep. Duncan Hunter of California: Like Tancredo, Hunter speaks for the frustrated immigration hawks in his party. He’s also using his presidential bid to sound the alarm about the Chinese regime which, he said in his debut television ad, is “cheating on trade and they’re buying ships, planes and missiles with our money, as well as taking millions of jobs.”
- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: Having finished 11 years as governor, Huckabee was free to show off his relaxed talents as a presidential candidate, which he’d already been doing as a public health crusader. “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork,” he pleaded in his book and in speeches warning of soaring incidence of diabetes and obesity.
- Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas: His candidacy ensures that social conservatives will have their voice heard on protection of fetal life in the womb and preservation of heterosexual marriage.
- Tommy Thompson: He served 15 years of governor of Wisconsin, implemented successful welfare reform in his state, and contemplated seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. But he yielded to a less experienced governor from Texas. On the campaign trial Thompson touts the significance of Wisconsin and its ten electoral votes and guarantees that he’d carry it for Republicans.
An unsuccessful bid can put a contender in the running for a future job, either as vice president, or as in the case of 1988 Democratic long-shot Bruce Babbitt who ended up as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior.
Sometimes, as in the case of Paul, these second-tier candidates represent a category-busting type of thinking that cannot find a comfortable resting place in either major party.
Is Paul having an impact?
Asked Thursday what impact he is having on the Republican presidential race, Paul said, “I think it might be significant that one of the so-called front-runners needed to attack me on national television. They must think I’m having enough of an impact that they have to try to discredit me. That was the purpose of the (Giuliani) attack: to discredit me so that my foreign policy challenge wouldn’t be heard.”
He added, “What annoys them the most is that I don’t criticize foreign policy from the Left; I criticize it from the Right, from a conservative viewpoint, from a constitutional viewpoint. It drives them nuts.”
Paul, a ten-term House member from Texas and the 1988 Libertarian candidate for president, admits most Republican voters don’t agree with his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy.
“I think the majority of Republicans right now are in the camp of intervention — but they’re also asking a lot of questions because of what happened in last year’s election and they know that they lost the election over foreign policy,” he said.
Complete U.S. exit from Iraq
Paul supports withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq — not leaving some behind for counter-terrorism operations and training Iraqi soldiers, as advocated by Democratic contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
And what of the consequences of U.S. exit from Iraq?
“It may be much better,” Paul said. “The Arab League may take over. Israel may be much more of a player there rather than us suppressing Israel. There’s all kinds of good things that could come of it.”
Paul will probably not be able to persuade Sen. John McCain to adopt a non-interventionist foreign policy. But in the long run, a contender can see vindication.
Case in point: Pete du Pont saw some of his ideas — considered extreme and unorthodox in 1988 — become mainstream.
In 1988 du Pont called for:
- Requiring welfare recipients to work, an idea which was incorporated into the 1996 welfare reform bill signed into law by President Clinton.
- Creating voluntary individual retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security, a proposal which President Bush championed and tried to get Congress to enact in 2005.
- Withholding drivers’ licenses from high school students who test positive during mandatory random drug testing.
- Offering vouchers to parents so they could send their children to private schools, if local public schools were dysfunctional.
Discounted as an iconoclast who had little chance to become the 1988 GOP nominee, du Pont proved to be ahead of his time. So, too, could be today’s crop of contenders.
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