Ron Paul’s supporters are actively encouraging Iowa voters to take advantage of Mitt Romney’s offers of free transportation to the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames on Saturday and then, once they are there, to vote for Mr. Paul.
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“Some say if Mitt is willing to bus Iowans to Ames for the straw poll, they should take him up on his offer!” says a flier in Iowa and on the Internet in advance of the straw poll for the Republican presidential candidates. The flier says that after riding the Romney bus to Ames, and allowing the Romney campaign to pay one’s $35 entry fee, Iowans should then carefully weigh their options and “they may decide to vote for Ron Paul.”
The flier is topped with a banner that says “2008 Ron Paul News,” but Jesse Benton, a campaign spokesman, said it was the handiwork of independent supporters over whom the campaign had no control. “We can’t tell our supporters what to do or not do,” Mr. Benton said, adding that the campaign did not want to get “entangled” with federal finance regulations involving potential in-kind contributions.
But he conceded that infiltrating the Romney bus could certainly help Mr. Paul. It is his first visible attempt at converting his popularity online into success offline, which, alas, is where it counts.
Late to the game in Iowa
Mr. Paul, a relatively obscure Congressman from Texas who caught fire online after appearing on the televised presidential debates, has only just started campaigning in Iowa. Mr. Benton said the fact that Mr. Paul was a full-time member of Congress prevented him from campaigning in Iowa sooner, although other candidates have been swarming over the state for months.
“This is his third trip to Iowa, but his first chance to really get out there,” Mr. Benton said. He just opened a campaign office in downtown Des Moines and started to advertise his anti-tax, anti-abortion rights, Libertarian message on radio, television and in the newspapers.
Mr. Benton said that regardless of how Mr. Paul did in the straw poll, he would stay in the race at least until voters started going to the polls in the primaries and caucuses, which could start in late December or early January.
While Mr. Romney is pouring thousands of dollars into winning the Ames straw poll, it is not clear what role Mr. Paul might play in cutting into Mr. Romney’s lead or jumbling the outcome for the other candidates.
Red and white “Paul” signs have sprouted up in cities across Iowa, at street corners and in front lawns, signaling at least some level of interest.
“He’s kind of a wild-card candidate,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the state’s Republican Party. “We don’t know what to expect. We’re sure he’ll have a big turnout, but we don’t know how many votes that will be.”
Mr. Laudner said that the Paul campaign appeared to be “bringing in a lot of folks from out of state” to help organize Iowans, who are the only ones allowed to vote. He said it was hard to read what the campaign was doing because it had made no contact with the state party.
“They’ve moved outside the whole campaign community,” he said. “They don’t come by. They do their own thing.”
Keeping an eye on Paul
The Romney campaign is bracing for a larger-than-expected showing from Paul supporters, according to Gentry Collins, who is overseeing Mr. Romney’s Iowa operations, although his saying that may be part of a broader attempt to lower expectations for Mr. Romney.
While Mr. Collins said he was confident of the Romney straw poll organization, he said it was carefully watching the excitement that seemed to be building for Mr. Paul.
The Paul campaign has bought the minimum of 800 tickets to give to Iowans to vote. Other campaigns have bought thousands. Simple math would suggest that to do passably well, the Paul campaign is relying on Iowans who buy tickets from other candidates to vote for Mr. Paul. The suggestion that Paul supporters catch Romney buses and vote for Mr. Paul is being widely debated on the Internet ; some see it as smart while others see it as dishonest.
Mr. Benton would not speculate where Mr. Paul might finish, but said he expected most of the candidates to receive between 1,500 and 3,000 votes. “If we can be somewhere in the middle of that pack, that would be a big success for us,” he said. “Our goal is to prove that we can translate our online support into bodies in Ames and prove we can run with the pack. We feel we have a lot of room to grow, while other campaigns might have reached their peak.”
Jeff Zeleny contributed to this post.
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