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After finishing second in New Hampshire's GOP primary and third in Iowa's caucuses, Texas Congressman Ron Paul has done better than any Republican presidential contender not named Mitt Romney. Paul has attracted support from outside the Republican Party by advocating everything from legalizing marijuana to an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. GOP officials gather this week for the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in New Orleans, and NPR's David Welna talked to them to find out what they make of Paul and his place in the party.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Four years ago, Ron Paul finished fifth in New Hampshire's GOP presidential primary and got just under 8 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, his share of the vote shot up to nearly 23 percent and put him in second place behind Mitt Romney. Paul's success so far is part of the buzz here at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting. Phyllis Woods is a national committeewoman from New Hampshire.
PHYLLIS WOODS: I think some of us were a little surprised, but I think conventional wisdom was that he has, you know, his support had kind of flatlined. I mean, it kind of leveled out.
WELNA: Some of the party officials here in New Orleans are happy to see Paul doing well. For supporters of Mitt Romney, Paul may have helped keep down the vote tallies of the four other top GOP contenders. Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis is a longtime supporter of Mitt Romney.
SAUL ANUZIS: Ron Paul brings a lot of energy to the party and a lot of new people to the party, so I think it's actually healthy to have him out there.
WELNA: For his part, Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson hopes Paul's advocacy of smaller government and expanded liberties makes its mark on the GOP.
MARK FAHLESON: I think at the end of the day, in the event he is not the nominee, that many of his ideas will be subsumed within the Republican platform and perhaps adopted by the nominee.
WELNA: Still, many Republican officials remain wary of the Texas congressman. Jan Staples is a committeewoman from Maine. She doubts Paul and his ideas have much support among the party faithful.
JAN STAPLES: Most of us have a bit of a libertarian streak, leave most people alone. But we don't want to leave people alone to the point that we become a lawless sort of there's no rules, anything goes, what's happening now is just fine with all of us.
WELNA: And while Paul has ground operations in states across the map, it was impossible to find any GOP official who considered his candidacy a real threat to frontrunner Romney. Ralph Seekins, a committeeman from Alaska, does not expect Paul's support will keep growing.
I think that he's probably got the people that are going to support him at this point, and I don't really think that he's going to be able to pick up those that drop out later on.
And might that prompt Paul to run as a third-party candidate, something he has not categorically ruled out doing? Seekins doesn't think so.
I don't think he's that dumb because that would simply be a vote for Obama. I don't think that that's what he wants to do.
Oklahoma committeewoman Carolyn McLarty is hoping Paul won't make an independent run.
CAROLYN MCLARTY: He is a Republican. He's always run as a Republican. Well, no, he hasn't always run as a Republican. But lately, he has, so hopefully, he won't take off on his own like that.
WELNA: One reason Republicans don't expect Paul to buck his party is it's so hard to get on the ballot at this point in many states. They also point to the fact that his son, Rand, is a Republican U.S. senator from Kentucky, deepening the Paul identity with the party. One thing everyone does seem to expect is that Ron Paul will compete in every primary, then make a stand for his ideas at the nominating convention in Tampa. David Welna, NPR News, New Orleans.
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