BETTENDORF, IOWA—After spending the past week and a half hopping from one Iowa town to the next, I've found few GOP voters willing to express wholehearted support for any candidate.
Take Debbie and Phil Rogers, a married couple from Cedar Rapids that I met before a Newt Gingrich event on Monday. He's a pastor for the United Methodist Church, and she works for Level 10 Apparel, the company that was hosting the event. Both supported Huckabee in 2008—"He's absolutely my guy. Loves Jesus, loves duck hunting, that makes him my kind of people," Phil said—but neither has yet to pin their hopes on any single candidate this time around. Debbie had liked Herman Cain earlier in the cycle, but is now left drifting between Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.
"I'm probably more undecided than she is," Phil said, though he clarified that he is "more interested in Newt and Santorum right now than anybody." Phil claimed that he was more inclined to caucus for whichever candidate he finds most appealing come January regardless of whether he or she can beat President Barack Obama. On the other hand, Debbie said she would take electability into account. "If I'm between two—if I don't have a clear-cut [candidate]—then I would probably vote for the one who has the best chance of beating Obama," she said. Gingrich wins that electability test in Debbie's book.
The couple is typical of the Republicans I have spoken with at GOP events. They'll offer up a handful of candidates they are considering—often with a slight advantage to whichever candidate is hosting the event where the interview took place—but are unwilling to be pinned down to any one person.
Every political generalization has its exception, and I think I finally stumbled upon one yesterday. The people who show up for Ron Paul events aren't there to weigh the Texas Congressman against the rest of the field; they entered the door certain that Paul is their man.
Paul traveled to campaign stops in four towns of varying sizes in Southeastern Iowa yesterday. At each stop the crowd showed up in droves. Volunteers at the Comfort Inn Suites in Fort Madison scrambled to retract the back walls of the conference space to fit the full audience for the first stop, and repeated the same strategy for the day's last stop, where over 600 of Paul's supporters packed into the Quad City Waterfront Convention Center here in Bettendorf. Ron Paul Revolution t-shirts abounded, people brought signs, and chanted "End the Fed!" At each stop Paul raised his opposition to the recent passage of the defense authorization bill—which allows indefinite detention of American citizens.
Ross Barden, 28, recently moved back to his hometown Fort Madison, Iowa after finishing law school in Illinois to start a family with his wife. He showed up at the Comfort Inn Suites yesterday morning to hear Paul speak for the first time, but is already convinced that he will vote for him in the caucus next month. "He's one of the few consistent conservatives available for the nomination," he said. "I love that people call him Dr. No in a negative context, when it's completely not at all. All the things he's vote no on I'm very proud of, such as the Iraq War and the bailouts." Catching up with Barden after Paul's speech, he was as convinced as ever and had even signed up to volunteer to help the campaign.
David and Carol Beelman own a meat market in nearby Montrose. Former supporters of George W. Bush, both are fully committed to caucusing for Paul. "I'd like to see him get rid of the Federal Reserve, balance our budget, get rid of the debt problem that we have," David said. Like many of those at the event, the Beelmans appreciated both Paul's Austrian economics and his anti-war, civil-libertarian streak. "We need to bring our troops back home. We need to quit being the world's policemen," he said.
Another thing that differentiates Paul's campaign from his opponents’: Whereas the other GOP candidates have concentrated on the typical Iowa evangelicals clustered in the state's Northwestern corridor, Paul has managed to draw in a large swath of independents and Democrats who have never voted in a caucus. At the day's second event in Mount Pleasant, Jim Schenk showed up early to see his favorite politician. "I like the message Ron Paul has," he said. "He's anti-war, he's for less big government." Schenk, who had always been registered as an independent, has already switched his voter registration to Republican and will soon vote in his first caucus. Before the same event, Wal-Mart employee Charlie Gotsch described himself as largely uninterested in politics, and because of work conflicts will skip the caucus unless a candidate truly inspires him. But he thought Ron Paul might just be that man. "He's the only one that I've found something to like about," he said. "I think he says what he thinks. He's kind of a—pardon the phrase—no bullshit guy."
The strong reaction Paul seems to elicit is, however, both a blessing and a curse. He can rest assured that he will have a base level of support when the results begin to trickle in January 3, but the negative reactions tend to be strong as well.
Republicans I spoke with at other rallies were indecisive about which candidate they would vote for in two weeks, but many were clear on who wouldn't be receiving their support. There has been massive media speculation that the Tea Party will operate as an anti-Romney voting bloc this year, yet it is Paul's name that I've heard most frequently crossed off Republicans' lists. "Ron Paul completely lost me during the debates," Phil Rogers, the pastor at that Gingrich event said listing his divergent take on foreign policy. "He troubled me."