DAVENPORT, Iowa -- "Ron Paul! Ron Paul! Ron Paul!" The chants were loud and persistent.
Mitt Romney came to town Monday and a Ron Paul rally broke out. As the Massachusetts governor left one of his relatively rare campaign appearances in Iowa, some two dozen supporters of the Texas congressman lined the sidewalk along outside the Hotel Blackhawk. Romney stepped out the door and heard the crowd expressing their enthusiasm for his GOP rival. Romney chuckled and waved before boarding the bus emblazoned with his slogan, "Believe in America." As the bus pulled out and turned onto East Third Street, the Paul fans chanted louder and waved their signs, some occasionally yelling, "Liberty!"
In one of the multiplying oddities of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, neither of the two candidates leading the polls in Iowa is the kind of conservative champion that has traditionally won the Hawkeye State's first-in-the-nation caucus. Between them, however, the moderate Romney and the libertarian Paul combine more than 40 percent of the GOP vote here, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls. And though they are neck-and-neck in the polls, there is no doubt which of the two current front-runners here generates the most fanatical support. When Ron Paul holds an event in Iowa, no Romney boosters are standing outside in the cold December wind maniacally shouting, "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!"
Undaunted by his inability to inspire fanatical enthusiasm, Romney keeps campaigning like the inevitable Republican nominee, with a message aimed squarely at the Democrat he expects to face next November. He quoted a speech that Obama gave in Davenport four years ago, when the Democrat told Iowans, "This is our moment. This is our time." That time is over, Romney told his GOP audience.
"Well, Mr. President, you have now had your moment. We have seen the results. And now, Mr. President, it is our time," Romney said to cheers. He blamed the nation's economic plight on the president who campaigned in 2008 on a unifying message of hope and change, but who now seems determined to seek re-election on a platform of class warfare.
"Once, Barack Obama appealed to our better angels," Romney told his Davenport listeners. "Today, he demonizes fellow Americans."
Nearly all conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere in America could cheer Romney's anti-Obama message, but remain doubtful that he is the Republican most capable of effectively delivering that message. On a series of issues ranging from health care to global warming to abortion to gay rights, Romney has previously been on the same liberal side as Obama. Although Romney is now running as a conservative -- another slogan on the side of his campaign bus is "Conservative, Businessman, Leader" -- it is difficult for him to out-run his own record. Neither, however, can the other Iowa front-runner.
Controversy continues to surround Ron Paul's newsletters, which in the 1980s and '90s served up a mix of melodramatic messages, including warnings about "the coming race war" and "the Israeli lobby." The American Spectator's Jeffrey Lord has written extensively about these skeletons in Paul's closet. Former Paul aide Eric Dondero wrote this week that he "never heard a racist word expressed towards Blacks or Jews" by the Texas congressman. Yet it is not difficult to imagine what use Democrats would make of those old newsletters were Paul somehow to miraculously emerge as the GOP presidential nominee -- a result that no analyst currently considers feasible. Paul's anti-interventionist foreign policy views (which his critics call "isolationist") make him an indigestible lump in the 2012 Republican field, and the main question seems to be how much damage he will inflict on his more conventional rivals during the course of the campaign.
That damage will begin next Tuesday in Iowa, and the two most likely victims are both erstwhile front-runners in the Republican field, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Should Paul finish first or second in the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses, neck-and-neck with Romney, the best hope for Perry and Gingrich would then be to finish third. However, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have both campaigned here longer and more often than either Perry or Gingrich. If either Santorum or Bachmann finishes as high as third next Tuesday, Perry and Gingrich would then be fighting for fourth place -- a humiliation, considering that both of them were once nationally recognized contenders, with much larger budgets that Santorum and Bachmann. And the most recent Iowa poll shows all four of those candidates -- Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum and Perry -- separated by a statistically insignificant margin in a four-way dogfight for third place behind Paul and Romney.
All of which is enough to remind conservatives of other polls, which show President Obama struggling to defeat a so-called "generic Republican" challenger in 2012. And it may be that the man whose bus rolled past the chanting Ron Paul supporters here in Davenport last night will end up campaigning next fall as exactly that: Mitt Romney, Generic Republican.
Not a very inspiring slogan, but perhaps Americans are tired of inspiring slogans.
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