ANKENY, Iowa -- Rep. Ron Paul is not going away.
The Texas Republican who speaks for the party's libertarian wing is projected to finish third, dashing hopes of an Iowa victory that would have rattled the GOP establishment. Yet Paul will wind up within a handful of points of the leader, pulling in a strong 20-plus percent of the vote, despite weeks of bad press and a surging former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
"It won't be long before there's an election in New Hampshire and believe me this momentum will continue," Paul told a disappointed but energetic crowd. "We are going to keep scoring just as we have tonight." Paul said that there were "three top vote-getters. We will go on, we will raise the money. I have no doubt about the volunteers. They will be there."
With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Santorum turning in top-tier performances as well, a divided party slugs its way to New Hampshire and South Carolina, where no immediate end is in sight.
Paul's run, while dismissed by the mainstream media, has the type of grassroots financial support that will allow him to remain competitive, possibly for months, as he takes on Romney's super PAC money machine and Santorum's evangelical support. Paul is also the only other candidate besides Romney who qualified for the Virginia ballot. Paul's persistent presence threatens to prevent any other candidate from collecting enough delegates to lock up the nomination without a drawn-out battle. A long race, then, allows for all sorts of surprises, the type Romney would rather avoid.
Since Paul's first "money bomb" raised $6 million in one day in December 2007, Paul has had the means to compete on the national stage. He's spent that time and money articulating a consistent message of "individual liberty," and through much of 2011 was considered a second-tier candidate, stuck at around ten percent in national and local polls.
But he began to climb as the 2012 Iowa caucus drew closer, and came into election day Tuesday either tied or just behind frontrunner Romney.
As Paul climbed, however, the media finally began turning its attention to him -- not always a benefit to a campaign. The rehashing of newsletters with racist content bearing his name stunted his rise, as fellow Republicans turned on him. Rick Santorum went so far as to call Paul "disgusting."
Pressure mounted and a longtime former aide emerged to defend Paul -- sort of. In a long statement, Eric Dondero, who served Paul off and on from 1987 to 2003, wrote that the Texas Republican was not racist and didn't dislike gay people, but was uncomfortable around them, relating a bizarre story about an unwillingness to use a gay friend's bathroom. Dondero added that Paul suspected that former President George W. Bush may have had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance about Pearl Harbor. Pressed last Sunday by Jake Tapper on the charge, Paul flipped out, calling it nonsense.
Paul's organization is as much a movement as it is a campaign, with self-organized elements that operate outside the campaign's direction. Though in a way, Paul's organization is distinctly, and ideologically, different from Romney's Super PACs, which are sponsored and organized by former aides and associates and are thinly-veiled arms of Romney's centrally-directed campaign.
The loose nature of Paul's organization makes it a less predictable entity, but also puts Paul's supporters closer to the ground, where they can sponge up crucial delegates other campaigns may miss.
Paul's overarching theme of personal liberty is combined with what he calls a non-interventionist foreign policy, which his critics deride as isolationism, and it's seen as his biggest weakness in the ongoing primary. Television ads in Iowa attacking Paul consisted largely of playing tape of his own remarks against attacking Iran, or opposing a U.S. presence in the Middle East. Paul's antiwar stance, however, has won him the strong support of college students and other young people, many of whom were lined up here in Waukee to register to vote for the first time, decked out in Paul stickers.
Paul also derives energetic support from general opponents of the drug war, a well as advocates of legalizing marijuana. Paul's critique of the Federal Reserve -- and his insistence that it should eventually be abolished -- dives deeply into the history of monetary policy and wins him a passionate following from a dedicated group.
Mike Johnson, a 29-year-military veteran, called himself "a little disappointed" as he shuffled out of Paul's election night party. "I figured it would be him and Romney," he said.
Johnson credited Santorum's performance with his relentless on-the-ground campaigning, but added, "He's not gonna be able to do that in every state."
This article was updated to include Rep. Ron Paul's speech to supporters in Iowa following projections of his third-place finish.