MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Suddenly, Ron Paul is in contention to win the Iowa caucuses and do well in the New Hampshire primary two weeks before the first votes are cast, reflecting the fluidity of the Republican presidential race as well as the inability of the party's social conservative, tea party and establishment wings to coalesce behind a favored candidate.
Yet, while the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman is earning support for his tightfisted fiscal positions, he's so out of step with the GOP mainstream on foreign policy and some domestic issues that even his most loyal aides doubt he can use his momentum to win the Republican nomination.
"I'm very much in the Republican tradition," Paul insisted yesterday as he campaigned in New Hampshire before heading back to Iowa today. "Very much in the American tradition."
True or not, this much is certain: Paul is having a major impact on the campaign. His outsider persona and refusal to acquiesce to the ways of Washington -- he's nicknamed "Dr. No" on Capitol Hill for voting against much legislation -- has earned him a following that he's leveraged to build a strong organization in Iowa and elsewhere. The respect that has long eluded him in the party may finally be coming to him.
Paul's rise comes as the final push to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses begins and Newt Gingrich becomes the latest candidate to slide in a race where Republicans have struggled to settle on an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The ferment underscores the degree to which Republicans remain divided over whether to select with a nominee seen as more capable of beating President Barack Obama or one seen more as the Democrat's ideological opposite.
In another sign of the fissures in the GOP, board members of a prominent Iowa Christian organization, the Family Leader, yesterday chose not to endorse anyone in the presidential race.
Separately, the national American Family Association yesterday endorsed the thrice-married Gingrich, the former House speaker. Gingrich helped the group raise money last year to campaign in Iowa against the retention of state Supreme Court judges who backed a 2009 ruling to allow gay marriage.