By Samuel P. Jacobs and Jason McLure
MANCHESTER, N.H./WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
Outside of his campaign, few people think he is a threat to win the Republican nomination for president.
And yet, Texas Congressman Ron Paul has pulled in a big chunk of the votes in both states where Republicans have voted on potential nominees.
On Tuesday, Paul finished second in the New Hampshire primary with nearly one-quarter of the vote, a week after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses.
For Paul, 76, it was the latest example of how his anti-establishment campaign has made him a player in the Republican nomination process - and even a potential force as a third-party candidate.
Paul has been pilloried by rivals as being out of step with mainstream Republican views - a charge he doesn't seem to mind - but his appeal to a core group of young voters, retirees and others is becoming difficult to ignore.
At the very least, his continued success ensures he will continue to be a factor in the campaign as it heads south for primaries in South Carolina (January 21) and Florida (January 31).
During a fiery speech before supporters last night in Manchester, Paul hit on familiar themes.
He railed against the Federal Reserve's influence on the economy, basking in chants of, "End the Fed, end the Fed."
And Paul, who has spoken out vociferously against the military-industrial complex and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, vowed to stop unnecessary wars.
Paul's detractors call him an isolationist with lax views toward defense and Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb.
"I sort of chuckle when they describe me and you as dangerous," Paul told cheering supporters late Tuesday. "That's one thing where they are telling the truth, because we are dangerous to the status quo.
"We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight," Paul added.
SUPPORT FROM INDEPENDENTS
Many observers say Paul's appeal is limited outside of states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where his libertarian appeal is particularly strong.
But on some economic and budget issues, Paul's persistence could drag the Republican Party platform closer to his views. Some of his supporters are pushing Paul to consider running as a third-party candidate, but he has not embraced that idea.
"I don't care that he can't win," Claire Pengelly, 23, a student who voted in Manchester on Tuesday. "It's important that the message gets out."
A key to Paul's strength is his ability to capture supporters among independents or those who don't traditionally consider themselves Republicans.
That has raised questions about whether Paul supporters would vote for another Republican candidate if he were not in the race. At his rally on Tuesday, many of his supporters seemed to confirm that.
"I'm ecstatic" over Paul's finish in New Hampshire, said student Judith Ayers, 20. "He's going to keep getting bigger."
Ayers said that, within the Republican Party, "there is a huge shift between the older people ... and the younger generation. The older people are on the way out and the younger people are bringing the cause of liberty back to the party."
New Hampshire is known for producing conservative voters who don't like to walk lockstep with the national Republican Party.
Harvey Lewis, 64, a vegetable farmer from Concord, New Hampshire, voted for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008 but voted for Paul on Tuesday.
"I don't think he's as corrupt a politician as the rest of them," Lewis said.
"The biggest issue is getting rid of incumbents."
"The deficit problem is something Congress brought on us," Lewis said. "The House and Senate aren't working for the country, they're working for themselves. Can you vote yourself a pay raise? They're a bunch of crooks."
(Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs in Washington and Jason McLure and Mary Milliken in Manchester; Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham)