PELLA, IOWA -- Representative Ron Paul of Texas was back in a familiar place Monday, campaigning for president before a lunchtime crowd of likely caucus-goers at Pella Christian High School. He has not formally declared his candidacy, but there can be little doubt about his intentions. And who can blame him?
If the Republican presidential nomination was awarded based on prescience, Paul would be the clear frontrunner. Long before the financial crisis of 2008, he had been warning about a housing bubble, about the enormous potential cost of taxpayers backstopping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and about the dangers that cheap credit was posing to the economy. Back when people were lionizing Alan Greenspan as the maestro, Paul was the chief critic of the Federal Reserve.
The economic collapse came too late to generate any momentum for him in the last Republican presidential primaries. Although he raised an impressive sum and amassed legions of online followers, he never seriously threatened John McCain in the race for the Republican nomination.
Today, Paul looks increasingly vindicated. Not only did he warn of the crisis, he has also set the pace for his fellow Republicans in responding to it, although few credit him for this. Paul was preaching fiscal austerity and draconian budget cuts when his colleagues were helping George W. Bush add an expensive new Medicare drug entitlement.
Now they all sing from Paul's hymnal, although none can touch his record of casting deeply unpopular votes against spending. Paul once voted to deny Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal because he didn't think the government should have to pay for it.
Too bad for him that winning the nomination requires more than just prescience and fortitude. That's especially true in Iowa, where a majority of Republican caucus-goers in 2008 identified themselves as evangelical Christians. Paul, a Protestant, is a libertarian who loves nothing better than debating the fine points of fiscal and monetary policy. The clearest sign yet of his presidential ambitions is that his host in Pella was one of the state's leading social conservatives, Bob Vander Plaats, who last year led the successful campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had voted to legalize gay marriage.
Paul gamely attempted to marry his libertarian message with the social-issue red meat for which his audience was hungering, with mixed results.
''We are living in an age when the family has been greatly diminished,'' he said in one of his clearer moments. ''We've accepted the notion that government takes care of us.''
But he frequently detoured into abstruse economic issues, like the Federal Reserve's program of quantitative easing, which puzzled the crowd.
Perhaps wisely, Paul opted not to participate in a presidential forum in Des Moines later that evening sponsored by another social conservative group, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which attracted many of the other prospective candidates. Some looked nearly as uncomfortable before this audience as Paul had been in Pella.
A number of Republican candidates have trouble speaking convincingly about social issues in ways that resonate with the party's religious base - and most would prefer they didn't have to. Polls show that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned about the weak economy and high unemployment; issues like abortion, divorce, and gay marriage barely register.
Some party leaders in Iowa worry that too intense a focus on social issues will jeopardize the state's status as crucial to determining the nominee. Several top-tier Republicans who hope to carve mainstream profiles, including Mitch Daniels and Mitt Romney, avoided Monday's forum. At the national level, some Republicans fear that catering too intensely to social conservatives will alienate mainstream Republicans and independents primarily concerned with the economy.
But the organizers of the Pella and Des Moines gatherings betrayed no such concern. They have made clear that their support will hinge on which candidate best responds to their preoccupation with social issues. That puts Ron Paul - and the rest of the GOP's presidential field - in a tough spot.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
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