MANCHESTER -- Ron Paul’s second-place finish tonight gives the Texas congressman -- who for years has been cast as a fringe, also-ran candidate -- much-needed momentum as the campaign heads south, first to South Carolina then Florida.
In a speech just after 9 p.m., Paul suggested his campaign is closing in on that of frontrunner Mitt Romney. “We’re nibbling at his heels,” he told a cheering crowd.
Just four years ago, Paul earned a fifth-place showing in this pivotal first-in-the-nation primary.
Tonight he was solidly in the upper tier of Republican candidates, vying to oust President Barack Obama from the White House.
Paul, who placed a respectable third in Iowa last week, is finally attracting the wider support that has so eluded him in his two previous campaigns for president -- in 2008 and as the nominee for the Libertarian Party in 1988.
His blend of politics, a unique hybrid of conservative Republican values and libertarianism, has captivated a strong following among the country’s youth. It has also attracted voters in this “Live-Free-or-Die” state who are disillusioned by the mainstream candidates that usually dominate the Republican and Democratic parties.
“People were expecting Ron Paul to be out of this race even before Iowa,” said Gary Howard, his spokesman. “We took that as motivation.”
A key question now is whether Paul will actively campaign in Florida, which holds its primary at the end of the month. Campaign officials said they would make that decision based on last night’s results and what happens in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary.
“Every next contest depends on the current contest,” Howard said.
There was little question that Romney would be the victor in New Hampshire. Holding on to second place was nevertheless a big accomplishment for Paul, who fended off the surging former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, and helped temporarily squelch the momentum of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who finished in a near-tie with Romney in Iowa.
Paul is scheduled to arrive in South Carolina tomorrow to campaign in the first southern state to hold a primary. In South Carolina, Paul will be confronted with a very different electorate -- one that doesn’t necessarily have the same libertarian streak that characterizes voters in New Hampshire. He will be vying for votes from fiscal and social conservatives, as well as a large contingent of staunch military supporters.
Persuading some in that last group could serve as a challenge for Paul, who has bucked his party on military spending. Some of his rivals have deemed his foreign policy and proposed cuts in the military as naive, even dangerous. He wants the United States to close its overseas bases and bring home all U.S. military personnel. And he has opposed the country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has also opposed the war on drugs, and has attracted followers that would normally be anathema to a Republican candidate.
Indeed some of Paul’s rivals have complained about the in-your-face style of Paul’s so-called “freedom fighters,” who routinely burst into the venues occupied by other campaigns, often crashing the campaign events of other candidates.