MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—South Carolina State Sen. Tom Davis is your basic early state prize: A credentialed up-and-comer, former chief of staff to the governor, conservative to the bone.
The setting for his endorsement Sunday, an unremarkable conference room in the cavernous Palisades Conference Center, was the familiar press conference stage.
But this event was a little different from the others: Rather than bored reporters and blasé staffers, it was witnessed by a throng of young supporters, who cheered and stood on their edges of their chairs, clapping and chanting in support of their chosen candidate.
And this was not a standard presidential candidate, but a sometimes-zany 76-year old Texan who has run twice before, but who is for the first time this cycle gaining a real foothold in the Republican Party.
“We can’t just have good enough. We can’t have incremental steps. Incremental steps have grown our deficit to $2 trillion every year,” Davis told the packed conference center ballroom. His rejection of incrementalism applies not just to economic policy, but to his choice of candidate as well.
“We need radical surgery, not aspirin,” he added in his introduction of Paul.
Davis’ endorsement is the latest small step in a largely unremarked trend of mainstream Republicans backing the libertarian icon. With the backing of well-regarded local figures like Davis – Paul has picked up a steady trickle of state legislative endorsements from Idaho to Iowa to South Carolina -- to warm words from party icons like Sarah Palin, Paul has pulled off one of the trickiest moves in politics: crossing over from the fringe. And while Paul hasn’t come far enough to win his party’s nomination, this run will leave him the kind of legacy in the party that has allowed past also rans – Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain – to return; in this case it could provides his son, Senator Rand Paul, the organization he’ll need to mount his own bid for the White House.
The support of a new conservative counter-Establishment has also injected Paul's ideas -- from cutting foreign aid to going back to the gold standard -- into the Republican Party's bloodstream. Once beyond the pale, they're now part of the conversation. And while he may go away, and his son's political future may be uncertain, the ideas may be here as long as is the young, libertarian generation he brought to presidential politics.
The credit for Paul's endurance lies, at least in part, with Mitt Romney. The frontrunner is barely an aspirin for a conservative base holding its head at the thought of another Obama term — as evidenced by a long list of tea partiers and others who are still looking past Romney for a candidate.
Former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson told BuzzFeed Monday that even if they warm to Romney, that’s not enough.
“That conservative base out there — they are the kerosene your pour in the fire to beat the liberals,” he said. “They like him. You’re going to have to have heat, passion. Republicans don’t just have to like a front-runner – they have to love him.”
Radio and online television host Glenn Beck has said he’d only vote for Romney “If I had a gun to my head” — which is only half a step above his steadfast opposition to Newt Gingrich. “I might consider Ron Paul as a third party,” he said last month.
Sarah Palin took the side of Romney’s attackers last week, calling on the former Massachusetts governor to prove his claim that he created 100,000 new jobs while at the helm of Bain Capital.
“Gov. Romney has claimed to have created a 100,00 jobs at Bain, and people are wanting to know, is there proof of that claim and was it U.S. jobs created for United States citizens? … And that’s fair,” she said on Fox News last week. “That’s not negative campaigning — that’s fair to get a candidate to be held accountable to what’s being claimed.”
She publicly defended Paul in November, calling on the media to give him airtime.
Then earlier this month she argued that Paul is pro-Israel, saying "he just wants to go about that [protecting them] in a different way."
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham last week that the attacks on Paul were harming the search for the anti-Romney candidate.
“I think one of the things that have hurt the so-called conservative alternative is saying derogatory things about Ron Paul,” he said. “I don’t agree with him on everything, but he is right about the out-of-control and unaccountable Federal Reserve. He’s right about the need for limited constitutional government and the importance of individual liberty.
Palin and DeMint are merely flirting with Paul; few contemplate that they would endorse him in what appears likely to be a long twilight delegate fight through the spring. Some conservatives also say the nod toward Paul is largely about keeping Romney from abandoning them entirely.
“I don’t see any conservative or tea party effort to stop Romney emerging if he’s the nominee,” Greg Mueller, a former Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes advisor, told BuzzFeed. “Will some conservatives endorse other candidates in South Carolina? Yeah, but we’re still in the primary.”
And Romney’s best friend in his combat with Paul is, ultimately, the incumbent.
“I think at the end of the day, the Obama fear factor really kicks in here. Conservatives think Obama is the most dangerous president in American history, and that is going to be a rallying mantra once the primaries and caucuses get finished.”