Rep. Ron Paul knows he's not the most silver-tongued in the field of 2012 presidential candidates, something that's been painfully obvious during the recent gantlet of televised debates. "At times I've been criticized for my lack of ability to give public speeches and all these other things," he said at an August campaign stop in New Hampshire. "But I'll tell you what, where I get my energy is from the people like you who are energized because of the very valuable message. I've never backed off on the message."
In the debates over the past week, this has been true. No one can accuse Paul of shying away from his passionate and consistent opinions, but he tends to ramble. And in the fast-paced, image-conscious TV world, this lack of eloquence could be a challenge for Paul in broadening his base of support.
"The golden ticket is being passionate and pithy," says Heidi Berenson, an Emmy Award-winning former network news producer who has coached political candidates, members of Congress, and Fortune 500 CEOs in media and communications. "On TV, delivery often upstages substance."
In a beat-the-clock debate, candidates have to look good and sound good in few words while still conveying their key message to the in-house and at-home audiences. "Eloquence in a debate is really the brass ring, and in a debate, it's really a stretch for the brass ring," Berenson says, adding that candidates must balance depth with clarity and energy. "But if you're meandering through your message," says Berenson, "it's going to be hard for people to connect with that."
So what about Ron Paul? During the two debates this past week, Twitter was abuzz with unfriendly comments relating him to a "kooky uncle" or complaining his answers were all over the place. His base of supporters is fierce and passionate (just check the comment section below any news article that calls him a long shot), but he'll need to garner broader support if he wants to win the nomination. His base, according to national polls, so far tops out at around 12 percent. And debates are key at this point in the race, according to Republican pollster Jon McHenry, whose firm works for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's campaign. "At this stage, where you're not seeing TV ads, that's how voters are going to get to know you," he says. "[Paul] has a gruff persona, and that's how he comes off in a debate. No one's going to vote for Ron Paul because they think he's a warm, fuzzy, grandfatherly figure."
McHenry adds that audiences tend to like Paul when they first hear him, but he starts to lose people when he gets rolling on foreign policy.
"Paul approaches the debates differently than most of his colleagues," says Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. In a debate, Paul "is more likely to borrow from [libertarian author] Ayn Rand than Ronald Reagan. There is a slice of the primary electorate that finds this attractive and refreshing," she says. "Others may find it confusing, especially if they are looking for headline-grabbing soundbites or play-to-the-audience humor."
This played out in the Reagan Library debate last Thursday when Paul talked about turning the air conditioning off in Afghanistan so the troops would come home, and also when he suggested a Southwest border fence to keep out illegal immigrants could be used to trap Americans instead. Both were nods to philosophies he has spelled out elsewhere, but in the debate format, the comments came across as a bit baffling.
But "substance is more important than style," Conway adds, with a dig at the current president. "Obama was elected mostly on style and soundbites, not record or experience, and we see the result of that."
Paul's unpolished style is part of his appeal to supporters. Pro-Paul political action committee Revolution PAC released an ad Monday calling Govs. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry "pretty boys" and "plastic men." The ad asks: "How about a man who gives us the truth, not a bunch of rehearsed answers?"
Paul's attacks on Perry during both debates definitely hit their mark, and he did get more applause from the Tea Party crowd than he did at last week's debate—in part because his views tend to be more widely accepted among libertarian-leaning Tea Partyers than mainstream Republicans. It was his economic philosophies, after all, that planted the seeds that helped inspire the movement. Particularly popular Monday night was his comment that people should be free to take their own risks on whether or not to get health insurance. "We've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it," he said. "This whole idea, that's the reason the cost is so high. The cost is so high because they dump it on the government, it becomes a bureaucracy."
But he also got booed by the live Tea Party audience for standing by the idea that U.S. foreign policy played a hand in provoking the terrorists responsible for 9/11—not an idea the Tea Party crowd was eager to consider. Former Sen. Rick Santorum firmly scolded Paul as irresponsible. "Someone who's running for the president of the United States in the Republican Party should not be parroting what Osama bin Laden said on 9/11," Santorum said, emphasizing that U.S. actions were not the reason al Qaeda attacked. "We were attacked because of what we stand for, and we stand for American exceptionalism. We stand for freedom and opportunity for everyone around the world."
If the past is any indicator, Paul isn't going to change his substance or style anytime soon. "Ron Paul is Ron Paul, and he's got one gear. He hasn't changed that since the '08 debates," says Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who worked on President George W. Bush's campaigns and also for Ron Paul's 1978 congressional run. "It's the same guy making the same point in the same tonality." Van Lohuizen describes Paul's tone as sharp and well-informed, but defensive at times and a bit passive-aggressive. He adds, "I don't think he's going to expand his constituency much beyond what it was four years ago if he maintains his current tone."