Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul during a GOP debate in October, said Wednesday he would vote for Paul over President Barack Obama if Paul were to win the GOP nomination. (AP File Photo)
By Amy Gardner
RENO, Nev. — The remaining candidates in the winnowed Republican presidential field are attacking one another with abandon, with each day bringing fresh headlines of accusations and outrage.
But Mitt Romney and Ron Paul haven’t laid a hand on each other.
They never do.
Despite deep differences on a range of issues, Romney and Paul became personal friends in 2008, the last time both ran for president. So did their wives, Ann and Carol. The former Massachusetts governor compliments the Texas congressman during debates — praising Paul’s religious faith during the last one, in Jacksonville. Immediately afterward, as is often the case, the Pauls and the Romneys gravitated toward each other to say hello.
The Romney-Paul alliance is more than a curious connection. It is now a strategic partnership: for Paul, an opportunity to gain a seat at the table if his long-shot bid for the presidency fails; and for Romney, a chance to gain support from one of the most vibrant subgroups within the Republican Party.
“It would be very foolish for anybody in the Republican Party to dismiss a very real constituency,” one senior Republican aide in Washington familiar with both camps said said. “Ron Paul plays a very valuable part in the process and brings a lot of voters toward the Republican Party and ultimately into the voting booth, and that’s something that can’t be ignored.”
To ensure they are heard — not just now but after election day — Paul and his followers are working to gain a permanent foothold in the Republican Party nationwide. One state at a time, Paul’s followers are seating themselves at county committee meetings, standing for election as state officers and convention delegates — all to make sure that Paul’s libertarian vision is taken into account. The goal is a lasting voice for an army of outsiders who have long felt ignored but see the nation headed to ruin if that doesn’t change.
That is just fine with the Romney campaign, which would be happy to bring Paul’s constituency — perhaps the most intense and loyal in the country — into the fold.
Romney aides are “quietly in touch with Ron Paul,” according to a Republican adviser who is in touch with the Romney campaign and requested anonymity to discuss the campaign’s internal thinking. The Paul and Romney campaigns have “coordinated” on minor things, the adviser said (even on small details, such as staggering the timing of each candidate’s appearance on television the night of the New Hampshire primary for maximum effect).
One advantage for Romney in Paul’s continued presence in the race is to keep the GOP field fractured. But there is also a growing recognition that Paul plans to stay in the race over the long term anyway — and that accommodating him and his supporters could help unify the Republican electorate in the fall election against President Obama.
“Ron Paul wants a presence at the convention,” the adviser said — and Romney, if he is the nominee, would grant it.
What Paul and his supporters would demand, and what Romney would offer, is the subject of some speculation. One Paul adviser who requested anonymity to speak freely said a prime-time speaking slot for Paul — and for his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — are obvious goals. On the policy front, Paul’s top priorities are reforming the Federal Reserve and reducing federal spending. So a promise to audit the Fed, and to tackle deficit reduction seriously, could appease Paul and his supporters, the adviser said.
Less likely are concessions on foreign policy, where Paul’s non-interventionist stand is at odds with Romney and most other Republicans.
Infiltrating the party
For Paul’s campaign, playing the inside-outside game has required nudging activists into the party system even as he and they remain wary of it.
“I’ve been involved in politics for 20 or 30 years,” Paul told a cheering crowd in a Spartanburg, S.C., hotel ballroom in January. “One of the reasons I became frustrated with the whole process is that the rhetoric could be so different. Republicans would say one thing, but then, when they get into office, they haven’t done a heck of a lot.” Paul paused, and his audience cheered loudly as he added: “Have you ever noticed that?”
Paul’s crowd was characteristically scrappy and diverse that day: a man with a ponytail and a camouflage hunting jacket, a young mother with two small children, a doctor and his wife and a well-dressed young professional couple.
Yet the insurgents are executing a concerted strategy to infiltrate the Republican Party. Five Paul supporters, for instance, sit on the Iowa GOP’s state central committee, where Paul finished a strong third in the Jan. 3 caucuses. In Nevada, the state GOP’s vice chairman is a Paul supporter. In Virginia, Paul supporters are lining up to attend county and district conventions to influence the election of national delegates.
In Reno, regional coordinator Wayne Terhune used a slide show on a recent weeknight to teach volunteers how to participate in a Republican precinct meeting to help Paul win delegates during the state’s upcoming caucuses on Feb. 4. He has tutored packed rooms at Denny’s as well as smaller crowds of followers in the Paul campaign’s Reno headquarters in a low-slung office building alongside the airport.
In a tiny conference room with a water cooler and two dogs on the floor, Terhune instructed volunteers not to allow paper ballots out of their sight after caucus votes take place — but also to dress neatly and inconspicuously, so that fellow Republicans wouldn’t be disinclined to elect them as caucus delegates.
A common refrain is to “cover your tattoos and cut your hair,” said Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, who often tells coordinators to “dress for business, because we mean business.”
“You’ll nominate yourself,” Terhune told the room. “They’ll probably have you give your speech. Have a meeting a day ahead so all the Ron Paul people know who the other Ron Paul people are, so you can vote for them. Then you give a generic speech, and the non-Ron Paul people say, ‘Oh, he’s solid, I can vote for him.’ ”
Terhune also urged the volunteers to pull out their iPhones and videotape the proceedings on caucus night if party officials “don’t play by the rules.”
Joining the establishment
Paul’s infiltration strategy began in 2008, after his last presidential bid ended, when he saw the potential to continue building a movement by working within the party.
But the idea took off in 2010 when Paul’s son, Rand, ran for the Senate. On an outsider’s, small-government message very similar to his father’s, Rand Paul won the Republican primary that year against an opponent who was handpicked by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and senior senator from Kentucky.
Then, quite strangely, the establishment and the Pauls came together.
At McConnell’s request, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent an adviser to Kentucky to watch over Rand Paul’s general-election campaign — “to be the grown-up in the room,” according to one Washington Republican who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The adviser, Trygve Olson, developed a friendship with Rand Paul, and the two realized they could actually teach each other a lot to the benefit of both candidate and party. Olson showed Paul and his campaign traditional establishment tactics: working with the press, fine-tuning message; and Paul showed Olson — and McConnell, by extension — how many new people his message of fiscal responsibility was drawing to the party.
One day that year, at Rand Paul’s request, McConnell joined him for a tea party gathering in Kentucky, according to a Republican who was there. “Who are these people?” McConnell asked, bewildered by the dearth of familiar faces at a political event in his home state.
At Rand Paul’s suggestion, Olson joined his father’s presidential campaign this year — basically to continue doing what he did for Rand: help bring the Paul constituency into the Republican coalition without threatening the party. It’s probably no small coincidence that the partnership helps Rand’s burgeoning political career, too.
“You can dress in black and stand on the hill and smash the state and influence nobody, or you can realize the dynamics and the environment and get involved in the most pragmatic way to win minds and win votes and influence change,” said Benton, the campaign manager. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”