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Ron Paul's N.H. Rise Could Hurt Jon Huntsman03:48
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Republican presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul during a November campaign appearance in Keene, N.H. (AP)
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul during a November campaign appearance in Keene, N.H. (AP)

Texas Rep. Ron Paul's fortunes appear to be rising in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. One Iowa poll released Tuesday has the congressman within one point of the front-runner, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In New Hampshire, too, Paul is rising in the polls, and he is drawing bigger crowds.

Paul is still in third place in New Hampshire, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Gingrich, but he is surging. And he's drawing more people to his events. Last month, when I saw him in Rochester, he attracted about 80 people. Tuesday night, in the Peterborough Town House, about 120 people showed up.

"Honestly, 120 is a pretty small crowd for Ron Paul," says Mike Dennehy, who, as the architect of Sen. John McCain's two successful New Hampshire campaigns, knows something about gathering crowds here. "He's typically getting 200 to 300 in other areas of the state."

Almost all of the people in the Peterborough Town House were like independent voter Tom O'Malley, who thought Paul would probably not take New Hampshire.

"I would think he'd probably be maybe in second or third place out here, with all the money that's being spent by Romney and Gingrich," O'Malley says. "I'm sure that he won't do as well as I'd like to see him do."

So if even his supporters don't think he can win New Hampshire, what's Paul's impact on the race? I came up here to find out if Paul is drawing people away from either Romney or Gingrich, but I can't get any sense of that from the crowd in Peterborough. No one here is trying to decide between Paul and another candidate. At the campaign events of other candidates — Romney, Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Pa. Sen. Rick Santorum — it's easy to find people who are trying to figure out who they're going to vote for.

But at the Paul event, everyone I talk to is a dedicated Paul supporter. Contractor and young dad Brandon Seppala, wearing a "Ron Paul for President: Defender of the Constitution" sweatshirt, hasn't considered another candidate.

"He's just an honest man, and that's pretty rare," Seppala says.

The people in the room like that Paul gives straight answers, that unlike Romney, he doesn't have a history of tailoring his answers to his audience. And University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala says this is happening across New Hampshire.

"Ron Paul, for this generation of young conservatives, is seen as that maverick Republican who sticks to his principles," Scala says.

Paul talks about one of those principles — self-reliance — at the Peterborough Town House.

"How do we get people to realize they can't live beyond their means?" Paul asks a man in the audience. "Well, if we didn't have bailouts, and we didn't have a dependency on government, if we didn't have welfare for the rich and food stamps for the poor, and they always knew government wasn't there to take care of them, they would be a lot more cautious."

You'd expect this pitch to be a hit with Republicans. But the room in Peterborough is full of independent voters.

"Ron Paul does better, or is seen more favorably, among independents than he is among Republicans," says Scala, who believes that gives us a clue as to how Paul might influence this race. Another candidate courting independent voters is Huntsman.

"I think that there's some evidence that there is some overlap between Huntsman voters and Ron Paul voters," Scala says.

Dennehy, the Republican political consultant, agrees.

"Independent voters seem to be moving more towards Ron Paul and less towards Jon Huntsman," Dennehy says.

But beyond agreeing that the rise of Paul is hurting Huntsman, Dennehy and Scala disagree on how else Paul is affecting the New Hampshire primary. Scala points out that Huntsman is trying to peel away votes from Romney.

"So to the extent that Ron Paul holds Jon Huntsman back, I think that tends to help Mitt Romney," says Scala.

But Dennehy points out that Romney, too, is trying to woo independent voters, and so he thinks Romney is hurt by the rise of Paul. And if Romney is hurt, that could help his current main rival, Gingrich.

This program aired on December 14, 2011.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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