A Ron Paul rally is a unique political event, best described as Ayn Rand meets Iron Maiden. Clean-cut, college-aged capitalists bond with shaggy-haired, semi-employed potheads, all in the name of the Paulite mantra of individual liberty.
When Mr. Paul stepped onto the riser in a jam-packed hotel ballroom on Monday, his supporters may just have been outnumbered by the national and foreign reporters who descend on Iowa every four years to experience the most American of democratic rituals.
But as the 76-year-old Texas congressman began a final, frantic day of campaigning before Tuesday’s Republican caucuses, it was clear that he had graduated from the fringes he occupied in the 2008 GOP race to become a top-tier contender to win the Hawkeye State now.
A final poll of likely GOP caucus-goers put Mr. Paul in a three-way dead heat with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Each is poised to earn one of the customary “three tickets out of Iowa.” But which one will be the locomotive, and which the caboose?
The three-way split is representative of the nearly equal and competing forces fighting this year for the soul of the Republican Party – metaphorically in the cases of Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul, not so metaphorically in the case of Mr. Santorum.
The ex-Pennsylvania senator, defeated in a 2006 re-election bid, is a diehard social conservative who puts religion and moral issues first. If Americans embrace traditional family values, he reasons, all of their economic and social ills will heal themselves.
Mr. Romney has built his second presidential run around his private-sector career as a founder of Bain Capital, as if his four years as Massachusetts governor and past five years of full-time campaigning for the Oval Office were incidental to his résumé.
Mr. Paul, who picked up only 10 per cent of Iowa caucus-goers in 2008, has surged to hold more than twice that much support in recent polls, as more Tea Party Republicans peg him as the only candidate serious about shrinking government and the military.
His numbers have been buttressed by fair-weather Republicans – new recruits drawn to the party specifically to support Mr. Paul’s candidacy. They will not stick around if he loses the nomination.
“The other [candidates] represent variations of the status quo,” Mr. Paul told the crowd on Monday. “The most important responsibility of government is to protect liberty, not to be the policeman of the world and not to have a runaway welfare state.”
Tuesday’s caucuses arrive none too early for Mr. Paul. Only days ago favoured to win the Hawkeye State, he has lost momentum on the heels of the blistering attacks on him by his rivals. The strict isolationist would, they say, leave Iran free to acquire nuclear weapons.
Mr. Paul has not helped himself by showing an unwillingness to disown, in the name of free speech, the white supremacists and anti-government militiamen who support him.
“The establishment is always going to be resistant to change,” offered Jim Roach, 52, a U.S. government employee (even he saw the irony in that) who turned out to hear Mr. Paul. “That’s why the young people here want him. They understand he’s not the status quo.”
Ted Taber, a 26-year-old Dubuque resident who works in computers, said he would caucus for Mr. Paul on Tuesday, “because he’s the oddball. And I just don’t like the others.” Still, Mr. Taber was quick to add: “I don’t think he’s electable.”
It was easy to get the sense that Mr. Paul’s appeal with the young voters who turned out, whether wearing crewcuts or flowing beards, stemmed from his being so far outside the political mainstream as to be more of a counterculture mascot than serious candidate.
Yet, even Marie Edwards, 57, a retired postal worker and registered Democrat, who came to see Mr. Paul with a friend, was impressed by what she heard: “He’s very convincing.”
“What bothers me is people who vote on one issue. I’m not for abortion, but I don’t think it should be the only issue you vote on,” she added. “And some Republicans are just using that issue to get votes.”
Indeed, the anti-abortion movement has long counted on Iowa’s GOP caucuses to make a show of force. Social conservatives may not account for a majority of Iowa Republican voters, but their devotion and organizational strength make them potential kingmakers in the state’s caucuses.
Their voice had been diluted as they split their support among Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mr. Santorum. But with Mr. Santorum’s late-in-the-day surge in the polls, they may end up crowning the winner again this year.
While he would rather win Iowa outright, a Santorum victory would not displease Mr. Romney. He would rather split Iowa with either Mr. Paul or Mr. Santorum than see Mr. Perry or Mr. Gingrich emerge stronger from the caucuses.
Neither Mr. Paul nor Mr. Santorum constitutes a serious threat for the nomination, since both have a low ceiling of support outside of Iowa.
That may explain why the habitually circumspect Mr. Romney was sounding so confident on Tuesday. After telling the CBS Early Show he expected “a real strong sendoff” from Iowa, he held four rallies across the state at which he ignored his GOP rivals and focused on doing battle in November with President Barack Obama.
“This isn’t just an election about policy or procedures or dollars or cents. It’s an election about the soul of America,” Mr. Romney told supporters in his stump speech.
No one can predict for sure what will happen in the intimacy of the Hawkeye State’s nearly 1,800 caucus precincts on Tuesday, where peer pressure, arm-twisting by “precinct captains” and last-minute conversions will come to bear in the sub-zero Iowa night.
There are souls for the taking, after all, as American democracy indulges in one of its more curious and empowering rituals.