As we continue to poll and observe the various states involved in the early caucus/primary battles for the Republican presidential nomination, one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: While Ron Paul may lag behind most of his GOP competitors in the polls, the intensity of devotion from his supporters makes his candidacy deserving of more attention than it's gotten to date.
His sometimes-quirky mannerisms and oddball demeanor fly in the face of what most Republicans traditionally look for in their presidential nominees. And his comments startle many for their bluntness and contrariness to long-running establishment GOP thinking.
That's exactly why Paul could have an unexpected impact not only on the Republican nomination process, but also on the November general election as well.
Consider that over 600 people turned out for a rally for Paul in Reno, Nevada, recently. The media described the crowd as a mixed group that included many college students.
That's another indicator of the potential impact of the Paul campaign. I recall in 1980 when establishment Republicans and conservatives were backing George H.W. Bush, John Connally or Howard Baker for president.
But on college campuses, the birth of the modern College Republicans movement was feeding off of the support of frustrated college students for the maverick in the race, Ronald Reagan.
Don't get me wrong. I am not predicting Paul will pull a Reagan and somehow beat out the GOP's establishment contenders. I will suggest that Paul may fatally damage several potential candidates, and perhaps the entire Republican Party, if he breaks away and runs as a legitimate third-party candidate after Tsunami Tuesday's primaries in early February.
Paul blends a unique mixture of cynicism over the health of the economy, loud opposition to the erosion of civil liberties, plus a stand as the only GOP candidate who's flat-out opposed to the war in Iraq.
Those issues unite a seemingly disparate group of voters who collectively feel that 20 years of the presidency being shared between two families -- the Clintons and Bushes -- is more than enough. They are voters who have found their mouthpiece in Paul, who's willing to voice their frustration over Republicans, Democrats and whoever and whatever else represents "The Establishment."
Paul could be deadly to someone like conservative Mike Huckabee, who is steadily rising in many polls but can't be assured of the devoted turnout of his supporters, as Paul almost surely can.
Paul's words have also taken away some of the ink that should have gone to Fred Thompson, who entered the race as the supposed "I'll say anything and throw caution to the wind" candidate, but whose measured and often boring campaign speeches have consistently fallen short of their billing.
Unlike many GOP candidates, Paul hasn't tried to have his cake and eat it, too, on the subject of President Bush. He has little or nothing charitable to say about the president. And with new revelations coming from Bush's own press secretary about "who knew what when" in the CIA leak scandal, Paul's distance seems all the wiser.
How do I think Ron Paul will impact 2008? It's at least possible that he'll fare better than expected -- and not just eventually in scattered primaries, but as early as next week in the much-awaited CNN/YouTube debate in Florida. Paul is often quicker and less plastic than his counterparts, and could do well in such a format.
But where will Ron Paul really do his damage? It could be by seriously damaging the Republican establishment his followers so despise.
How? By running as a third-party candidate. In critical "Red States," where the vote may turn on just a small percent, Paul could block any hope of a GOP victory.
That would likely mean a Hillary Clinton presidency. But it might also mean a true remake of the Republican Party for the future. The abandonment of the get-along, go-along Republican Party is something that many, including and beyond Paul's supporters, would like to see.