MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary on the heels of an very slim win in Iowa, Mitt Romney solidified his status as the man to beat and underscored the increasing odds his opponents face in trying to wrest the Republican nomination from him.
With a solid third-place finish, Jon Huntsman outperformed pre-election polls and gave himself a reason to extend his campaign beyond New Hampshire, even if the nomination remains a dubious goal. And with fourth- and fifth-place finishes, respectively, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum highlighted their weakness among more moderate Republicans and set themselves up for a do-or-die contest in South Carolina.
But, as has become increasingly common, more eyes were on Ron Paul than on almost anyone else. And, while many Republicans have struggled this election cycle to articulate why they voted for the candidate they did, the Paul supporters who filled the Executive Court banquet hall in Manchester on Tuesday night were eager to talk about why they liked Paul's libertarian message and to explain how, precisely, his proposals would work.
Many were drawn to the campaign by the sort of gut feeling described by Christine Gearty, an independent voter who said she considered Romney but went for Paul in the end, but it was a gut feeling driven by concerns about very specific issues, from the Federal Reserve to the Patriot Act to the war in Afghanistan.
It's the Economy, Stupid
Asked why he supported Paul, James Campbell, a campaign volunteer, spoke for nearly 10 minutes about what he saw as the failure of Keynesian economics and the vindication of principles Paul has advocated throughout his time in Congress.
A lot of people are saying the number one issue is to create jobs. Government can never create a job. It's impossible, Campbell said. It can create work, but once the work is done, they [workers] get put back and it's like nothing ever happened. It's putting a Band-Aid on an amputee.
The only way that government can create a job, and I use that facetiously, because they can create a job by deregulating. They can create a job by staying out of the free-market system, he continued. What government should be doing is getting rid of all these departments that we don't need, and that would allow the states and private enterprise to take over, which would create more jobs. I believe Ron Paul is the only one who can do it, because he is the only one who states that government cannot.
As evidence, Campbell cited decreasing costs in the deregulated medical fields of plastic surgery and LASIK surgery, and conversely, financial turmoil in government-sponsored agencies like the United States Post Office and Amtrak.
Campbell was one of many voters who said they were drawn primarily to Paul's economic plan, and particularly to his proposals to eliminate the income tax and the Federal Reserve.
Every Republican candidate has talked about cutting taxes, but the refrain at the Executive Court was that only Paul was really serious about it.
Since he wants to reduce the size of government, it's believable that he'll actually eliminate taxes, Julien Kelley said. The other ones, they want to eliminate taxes -- well, they say they do, but they don't actually want to reduce the government.
When asked about Paul's end the Fed proposal, her husband, James Kelley, pulled from his pocket two dimes, minted the year before the Coinage Act of 1965 removed silver from the coins' composition.
These dimes right here -- they're just 1964 silver dimes. They're worth like $3.50 or so in silver, yet they're dimes, he said. That's what the Federal Reserve has done.
No More World Police
Aside from the economy, the other central issue Paul's supporters talked about was foreign policy -- the argument being that the United States creates international tensions through its military interventions, and that a non-interventionist foreign policy would make the country more, not less, secure.
Pretty much every single conflict we've been in, we've somehow preceded it. We armed the mujahideen to fight the Soviets, and then we fight them as the Taliban. We put [Fidel] Castro in power; we put Saddam Hussein in power; we put the current leadership of Iran in power to depose the previous leader, James Kelley said. It's hard to say that to somebody who hasn't addressed these issues. You say we started all these [conflicts], and they say, 'Oh, don't blame America for everything!' But once the emotional charge defuses, it makes a lot of sense.
Campbell made a similar point, noting that Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's Bin Laden Unit, had endorsed Paul last week and echoed the argument that nation-building is detrimental to national defense.
Iran, for example, is surrounded by the United States, so they are fluffing up their chest and saying they're more powerful than they are, Campbell said. He put Venezuela in the same category: You see these small powers, where the U.S. policy doesn't agree with them, they're starting to combine forces because they believe -- and they're correct -- that we are the threat in the world because of our nation-building foreign policy.
Edward Bemis, a Vietnam veteran, said the military's only purpose should be to protect ourselves, not anyone else.
You get in the Middle East -- can you tell me the mission? Can you tell me the enemy's name? he asked. Does that sound like logical thinking? 'Who are we fighting?' 'I don't know.' 'Why are you fighting?' I don't know.' Being military, listen, I don't want to put my gun all the way down. This is still a very unfriendly world. But the F-22 came out and a month later the F-24 came out at an $8 billion cost of the taxpayers' money, and we have 25 times more strength than all other countries combined.
Another Manchester voter, who gave his name as Pat, asked rhetorically how Americans would feel if the nation-building roles were reversed.
Right now I don't feel free. There are a lot of things that are restricted that I want to do, he said. But what if the Chinese were like, 'Oh, we're going to liberate you'? I'd be pissed off.
Bemis, meanwhile, was angriest about the presence of American troops in countries like Germany, where there is no war and no threat to the United States.
What are they going to do, he demanded, throw sauerkraut at us?
More than a Feeling
For his supporters, these specific grievances and Paul's consistency in addressing them have led to a sense that Paul is the only politician who can be trusted -- even if one doesn't agree with every element of his platform.
I don't agree with everything [he says], and I know a lot of people don't, said a voter who gave his name as Pedro. (He declined to specify what parts of Paul's platform he disagreed with.) But he's consistent, so you know what he's going to do in the future based on his 26 years of consistent voting.
Joe Domenico -- who proudly recounted crashing a Newt Gingrich rally earlier this week and using a laser projector to superimpose Ron Paul 2012 over the main sign outside Gingrich's Manchester headquarters -- said he saw Paul as Americans' last chance to save their civil liberties.
The Constitution is being thrown into the shredder, Domenico said. The Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act -- I'm afraid that just standing around on the corner holding a Ron Paul sign at some point in the future, for whoever the next Ron Paul is, could be a treasonable offense.
It is this sort of fear -- and conversely, the hope that such a fate can be avoided -- that makes Paul's supporters so fervently loyal.
Bemis, for one, said he had been a political atheist until he heard about Ron Paul four months ago.
I gave up. I was going to resolve to my private life and say, I hate to say it, but the hell with it, he said. I'm 65. I've heard more lies than you've heard. I've been hearing lies my whole life, and it's pretty hard to swallow. This guy gives me hope.