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On the campaign trail, New Hampshire's largest newspaper, The Union Leader, has endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shaking up things in that early primary state. Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is considered to have the lead there. But Gingrich and another candidate, Ron Paul, are gaining traction. Congressman Paul's libertarian ideas have always drawn supporters in the state with a strong independent streak. But turning that into a win is another story.
As New Hampshire's Public Radio's Jon Greenberg reports, with less than seven weeks to go, there are signs that Paul could surprise people in the nation's first presidential primary.
JON GREENBERG, BYLINE: Ron Paul supporters probably wouldn't like this observation, but former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is sitting pretty in New Hampshire. He's been the front-runner here all year, so whoever comes in second in the Granite State isn't doing too shabbily.
PROFESSOR ANDY SMITH: I could very well see Ron Paul coming in second place.
GREENBERG: Longtime pollster Andy Smith runs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. His numbers last week show Paul in third with 12 percent, up from just a month ago. Other alternatives to Romney have risen to double digits only to fall back again, but Smith says Paul has some key advantages.
SMITH: He's got more money than other candidates, and he seems to have a more committed young following. So those young voters always important on the campaign trail because they essentially will work for free and they're very enthusiastic about Paul.
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GREENBERG: This week at Keene State College, Paul was clearly finding his campaign's sweet spot. More than 300 people packed the hall meeting, many of them students. Paul launched his remarks with his signature call to return the dollar to the gold standard, then talked of his plan to bring home American troops from across the globe.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: I don't believe we have the right or the authority to tell other people what to do. We ought to be dealing with our problems here at home and improving our own conditions here.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GREENBERG: Paul's base of young voters and hard-core libertarians leads some handicappers to pigeonhole him and dismiss his chances - and with some historic justification. In the 2008 New Hampshire primary, he drew less than 8 percent of the vote. But things could be significantly different this time, as Paul is reaching into new corners of the electorate.
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GREENBERG: Paul's next stop after Keene was a house party in the affluent town of Windham on the border with Massachusetts. This was no humble living-room affair. The host hired bartenders to staff not one but two built-in bars. The appetizer table offered rabbit pate.
Steve Airocci teaches social studies and came to hear Ron Paul in person. Four years ago, he voted for Obama and had no interest in Paul. Now, he's interested. He says he's changed because he senses the established order has driven the country down to rock bottom.
STEVE AIROCCI: There's nowhere else to go. We have to do something drastic. We have to make some significant changes in government overall, and primarily on the financial side.
GREENBERG: Airocci is a registered independent, a fertile group for Paul in the past. This year, though, some registered Republicans are also giving Paul a closer look. Many voters who like Paul say they believe he's the only candidate who truly means what he says.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen says another reason voters might have good feelings about Paul is the way he has sidestepped the normal campaign rough and tumble.
FERGUS CULLEN: He's unlikely to get attacked by any of the other opponents because no one sees it as in their interest to go after him. So they're going to continue to just hear the positive and not the negative.
GREENBERG: Cullen says events have made Paul's ideas about foreign entanglements and rethinking government more plausible. But his gut tells him most Republican primary voters are still not ready to go as far as Paul would like. That's probably true for the race for first place. But in the race for second, Paul might be the one to watch in the home stretch.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Greenberg in Concord in New Hampshire.
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