RENO, NEV. — The remaining candidates in the winnowed Republican presidential field are attacking one another with abandon, each day bringing fresh headlines of accusations and outrage.
But Mitt Romney and Ron Paul haven’t laid a hand on each other.
Despite deep differences on a range of issues, Romney and Paul became friends in 2008, the last time both ran for president. So did their wives, Ann Romney and Carol Paul. The former Massachusetts governor compliments the Texas congressman during debates, praising Paul’s religious faith during the last one, in Jacksonville, Fla. Immediately afterward, as is often the case, the Pauls and the Romneys gravitated toward one another to say hello.
The Romney-Paul alliance is more than a curious connection. It is a strategic partnership: for Paul, an opportunity to gain a seat at the table if his long-shot bid for the presidency fails; 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,” said one senior GOP aide in Washington who is familiar with both camps. “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 that they are heard — not just now but after Election Day, too — Paul and his followers are working to gain a permanent foothold in the Republican Party nationwide. One state at a time, Paul’s supporters are seating themselves at county committee meetings, and standing for election as state officers and convention delegates, to make sure their candidate’s libertarian vision is taken into account. The goal is a lasting voice for an army of outsiders that has long felt ignored and sees the nation headed toward ruin if things don’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’s aides are “quietly in touch with Ron Paul,” according to a Republican adviser who is in contact with the Romney campaign and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its internal thinking. The two campaigns have coordinated on minor things, the adviser said — even 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 is that Paul’s presence in the race helps keep the GOP electorate fractured. But there is also a growing recognition that the congressman plans to stay in the contest over the long term — and that accommodating him and his supporters could help unify Republican voters in the general 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, are subjects of some speculation. One Paul adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said prime-time speaking slots for Paul and his son Rand, the junior senator from Kentucky, are obvious goals. On the policy front, Ron Paul’s priorities are reforming the Federal Reserve and reducing federal spending. So promises to audit the Fed and to tackle deficit reduction seriously could appease the congressman and his supporters, the adviser said.
Less likely are concessions on foreign policy, where Paul’s non-interventionist stand is at odds with that of 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 an enthusiastic 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?”
The crowd that day was characteristically scrappy and diverse: 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 state GOP’s central committee in Iowa, where their candidate finished a strong third in the Jan. 3 caucuses. In Nevada, the vice president of the state GOP backs Paul. 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 in the state’s caucuses on Saturday. He has tutored packed rooms at Denny’s as well as smaller crowds in the campaign’s Reno headquarters, located 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 told the volunteers not to allow paper ballots out of their sight once votes take place — and to dress neatly and inconspicuously, so fellow Republicans won’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 record the proceedings on caucus night if party officials “don’t play by the rules.”Teaching the establishment
Paul’s infiltration strategy began in 2008, after his last presidential bid, when he saw the potential to continue building his movement by working within the Republican Party.
But the idea took off in 2010 when Paul’s son Rand ran for Senate. On an outsider, 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
The adviser, Trygve Olson, developed a friendship with Rand Paul, and the two realized that they could teach each other a lot — to the benefit of both candidate and party. Olson showed Paul and his campaign establishment tactics: working with the news media, fine-tuning its message. And Paul showed Olson — and by extension, McConnell — how many people were drawn to the GOP by his message of fiscal responsibility.
One day that year, at 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.
And at Rand Paul’s suggestion, Olson joined his father’s presidential campaign this year, basically to do 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.”