Mr. Second Place
Why Ron Paul has other Republicans running scared in Nevada.
Paul’s movement isn’t a surprise anymore. It’s an excuse-in-the-making for Republicans who will end up losing to him. Three months before the caucuses, he has two campaign offices and six full-time staff here. Romney is working the state, too; Herman Cain and Rick Perry have some staff and endorsements. The other candidates don’t really have anything. Last week, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman actually used the state’s decision to move up the caucuses to announce that they’d skip the caucuses. Paul’s fans love, love, love watching the forfeits.
“Come on, who was gonna vote for Huntsman?” scoffs one UNLV senior who’s studying economics. “Oh, ‘I'm not going to compete in Nevada because they moved up the vote.’ That’s like me saying I could play in the NBA, but I don’t want to. Nope. I’m not in the NBA because I’m 5-foot-7-inches.”
The NBA’s not the best metaphor for what’s happening to these caucuses. If it stays a contest of Romney and his Mormon base versus Paul’s merry libertarians, it’s a poker game that no one else can buy into. And Paul’s fans, not used to this feeling, like being on top. When the candidate’s speech ends—no Q&A—he moves back toward the hallway, past the ropeline, ready to sign books and shake hands. Deirdre Heydee, a fan who drove in from California, has brought $80 skateboards with Paul’s face drawn on them.
Paul doesn’t get to shake many hands. The media have rushed over to ask him questions, and a local TV reporter shoves a microphone in his face to grill him on entitlements. “What would you say to people in Nevada,” she asks, “who depend on the programs you’re talking about cutting?”
“Well, I talked about that,” says Paul. “I’m not going to repeat my speech.”
“What would you say, if they depend on those programs?”
“I gave my speech. I can’t repeat my speech.”
Paul avoids a pulsating blob of cameras and heads back to the hallway. A few fans snap at the reporter for asking the question. Carol Paul chastises her, saying she stopped her husband from meeting more of the people who wanted to see him. It’s ironic. Earlier in the day, the Paul campaign had sent out a fundraising e-mail blaming the press for not giving him more coverage. “The media continues their old tricks of propping up their preferred candidates with more airtime,” it says, “while ignoring those who challenge the status quo.”
But hey, maybe defending every little position in a scrum isn’t what Paul is talking about. The bet is that he doesn’t need to. He gives the same basic speech he’s been giving for 30 years; he keeps adding followers; he’s got the money to spread the message. And Nevada, bleak as it is right now, is fertile territory for the message. Unemployment in this state spiked to the mid-teens in 2009, and it’s stayed there. After the speech, I drive over to Paul’s new campaign office in the Vegas suburb of Henderson. It’s one of the only inhabited spaces in a stucco strip mall built for two dozen stores. I walk into the office at the same time that a new Paul supporter is stopping in for a lawn sign.
Photo by David Weigel
“People walk past the parking lot and they see the economy,” says Steve Bierfeldt, Paul’s Nevada executive director. “People in Nevada don’t need to be told that unemployment’s a problem, or foreclosures are a problem. They’re living that. He’s talking about it.” And so Paul’s campaign thinks Nevada is actually winnable? “Definitely.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.