With South Carolina primary Saturday, Paul is last Texan in Republican race

Posted Friday, Jan. 20, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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AIKEN, S.C. -- With a Ron Paul sticker on her red vest and a Ron Paul sign in her hand, 60-year-old Cindy Vasovski left no doubt about her choice of candidates on the eve of today's South Carolina primary.

To Vasovski, the Texas congressman is a modern-day Noah whose warnings about runaway spending and deepening debt are finally taking root within the nation's electorate. "We don't believe a word out of the other candidates," she said.

Vasovski, whose husband is Paul's state campaign chairman, was among more than 150 who packed into Bobby's Barbecue on Aiken's outskirts for a Paul rally Friday. She also exemplified the intense loyalty that unites Paul supporters and drives his candidacy in the 2012 presidential race.

After Gov. Rick Perry's exit from the race Thursday, Paul, 76, of Lake Jackson, is the last Texan standing in the dwindling field of Republican competitors.

"Well, more votes for me," Paul said Friday when asked about Perry's withdrawal as he shook hands with voters in a cavernous airport hangar near North Charleston.

Few experts believe that Paul has a genuine shot at the Republican nomination. But his strong showing in the opening contests -- third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire -- has clearly won him respect as a force in the Republican race. He seems poised to go the distance and possibly force the inclusion of some of his libertarian views in the GOP platform.

Perry's withdrawal shrank the Republican field to a four-man contest going into today's first-in-the-South primary. South Carolinians take pride in the fact that every winner of the state's primary since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination.

Days ago, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts appeared within reach of a South Carolina victory and a smooth path toward the nomination. But a late surge by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has turned the predictions upside down and transformed the likely outcome.

Clemson University's latest Palmetto Poll, released Friday, showed Gingrich in the lead with 32 percent and Romney second with 26 percent. Paul was third with 11 percent. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, it turns out, narrowly won the Iowa caucuses, was fourth with 9 percent.

Paul, who is making his third presidential bid, has consistently stoked a loyal and growing following with an untraditional message that includes opposition to war and many federal regulations, including drug laws. He has repeatedly warned of an economic Armageddon unless the United States reins in debt and spending, and he has vowed to slash the federal budget by $1 trillion in his first year as president.

Young supporters

Paul is the oldest candidate in the race, but his themes have found a home among many young people and anti-war activists. Brothers Wyatt Heck, 27, and Matthew Heck, 22, drove more than 360 miles from their home in Knoxville, Tenn., to attend Paul's late-morning rally at a general-aviation airfield.

"The youth of America are stepping up," Wyatt Heck said.

"We traveled all this way to see Ron Paul. He's a good motivator."

But Paul's call to drastically curtail the military's overseas presence has triggered concern among active-duty personnel and veterans, who make up a substantial share of South Carolina's population.

"He wants to get everybody back here, and we've got to have military throughout the world," said Richard Schommer, 69, a retired Navy petty officer from Goose Creek, S.C. Schommer said he was still undecided and attended Paul's rally to help him make up his mind.

Last veteran in race

Possibly in an effort to blunt the concerns, Paul tells South Carolina voters that he is the only candidate with military experience now that Perry has quit. Paul served for nearly five years as an Air Force flight surgeon. Perry was an Air Force transport pilot.

At Thursday's Republican debate in North Charleston, just hours after Perry announced his withdrawal, Paul introduced himself as "the only U.S. veteran on this stage tonight."

He also told the audience that he gets "twice as many donations from the military, active military people, than all the rest put together."

Paul sought to bolster his political base and win converts in a six-city stop across South Carolina on Friday, reciting the key themes of his Restore America Now message.

In North Charleston, supporters pressed for autographs and photos with Paul as he walked toward the exit.

Paul said, "Do whatever you can to get some votes out for tomorrow night."

Dave Montgomery,

512-476-4294

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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