Ron Paul's pitch to Iowa social conservatives

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa -- Rep. Ron Paul is most associated with his economic and foreign policy views, but one of the secrets to his success is the appeal he's making to Iowa's socially conservative electorate, something that may come as a surprise to those who know him as a gadfly libertarian.

On table outside a Paul town hall meeting in a public library here, attendees were offered fliers promoting Ron Paul as a "pro-life champion" and somebody who would "defend traditional marriage." None of the materials mentioned anything about foreign policy, unless you count the linguine recipe in the “Ron Paul Family Cook Book.”

(He did discuss foreign policy during his formal remarks -- more on that later.)

Now, none of this necessarily contradicts his libertarian views. After all, if one believes that life begins at conception, it's consistent to believe that the unborn child has individual rights, the most fundamental being the right to life. And throughout his campaigns, Paul has touted his strong pro-life credentials -- which are bolstered by the fact that he's delivered thousands of babies as an OB/GYN in Texas.

When it comes to gay marriage, Paul has said it should be left up to the states -- meaning he doesn't believe the federal government should either prohibit or force the legalization of gay marriage. But what's interesting about the gay marriage flyer distributed in this event is it uses culture war language to make him appear as if he's a staunch social conservative on the issue, even though the standard social conservative position calls for a Federal Marriage Amendment, which he opposes.

The handout touts Ron Paul's support for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents a state from being forced to recognize a gay marriage from an outside state. It blasts "Barack Obama's assault on marriage" (for declining to defend court challenges to DOMA), noting it means every state, "should have to allow San Francisco and New York City to decide its marriage laws." (Partial photo here.)

When I spoke to one voter at the event, he told me marriage was one of his most important issues along with abortion and the budget -- and he cited it as a reason he was backing Paul.

And one of the advantages of having been dismissed as a crank who couldn't win the caucuses is that it has allowed Paul to skate under the radar and make it easier to thread the needle between his appeal to libertarians and to social conservatives. Had he  be been taken seriously as a front-runner earlier in the process, he'd probably be subject to negative ads informing conservatives that Paul does support the right of individual states to allow gay marriage. Instead, the lower profile has allowed him to quietly make his case to social conservatives, and expand his base beyond libertarians.

As a parting note, Sioux County, where this event was held, was carried by a two-to-one margin by Pat Buchanan in the 1996 caucuses -- and of course, he's known for his cultural conservatism and non-interventionist foreign policy views.

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