Neal Hamberg / Reuters
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Congressman Ron Paul and his wife Carol acknowledge supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 10, 2012.
Where's Ron Paul today? Not in South Carolina — where most of his competitors for the GOP presidential nomination are vying for votes in next Saturday's primary — but at home in Texas.
The 76-year-old Texas congressman is taking off another stretch of time to cool his jets back home during a critical period before South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary after similar breaks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
But his time off from the trail raises questions about how much better he might have performed in these contests, and whether his campaign is really waging a serious bid for the GOP nomination.
“By any normal standard the media headline would be 'candidate X gives up,’” said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, of Paul's more relaxed campaign schedule.
The lack of scrutiny of Paul’s schedule, Fleischer said, reflects the presumption that he won’t win the nomination. And the scheduling only fuels that perception, he said.
“It's why people perceive him as running to lead a movement, and not to win the Oval Office,” Fleischer explained.
Per NBC embeds' reporting, none of the other presidential candidates have off nearly as much time as Paul.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn't taken a day off of the campaign trail since Dec. 27, and neither have former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a day or so after the Iowa caucus to consider whether to continue with his campaign, and decamped for the Palmetto State since then.
By comparison, Paul has taken off six days since Christmas. He took off Dec. 26-27 for an extended holiday to be with family in Texas, and took off New Year's Eve and New Year's Day to do the same. During this time, Paul's competitors were battling to shore up final votes before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses. Paul also took off the two days following the caucus before heading to New Hampshire last Friday to begin a weekend of campaigning before the Jan. 10 primary.
Paul finished third in Iowa, just about 3,800 votes behind Romney. He finished second in New Hampshire, though Paul trailed Romney there by a much wider margin.
Paul campaigned in South Carolina on Wednesday, but is taking off Thursday through Sunday to head, again, back to Texas. He ranks fourth in South Carolina, but within striking distance of moving upward, in the latest reliable poll of the South Carolina primary.
But Paul's campaign strategy has never been premised on winning the early succession of nominating contests. While he competed fiercely in Iowa, Paul's campaign is built for the long haul. He has money and organization and no incentive to drop out, considering he opted against seeking re-election this fall. On top of that, Paul's campaign has opted against competing in primaries like Florida's — which hosts a closed, winner-take-all contest that generally becomes pricey for candidates — in favor of caucuses like Louisiana, Nevada and Maine, where Paul generally performs better.
That said, a path to the nomination becomes tougher if Paul only wins those contests, and his momentum could wane if another candidate emerges as a presumptive nominee.
Following his rally on Friday, Paul addressed his relatively lax schedule.
"I don’t know if we took a couple days off as much as we just stuck to our plan," he said. "We had a plan, we were to be here the last five days, we came back. But the whole thing is it reflects our strategy and the work that we’ve done. We’ve been up here many, many times. There’s probably not very many who has been here more than I have. And we have invested a lot of money too. We’ve had fortunately a lot of donations, we put a lot of money in here. So we’ve been very, very active and we’ll be very active these last five days."
When asked to describe the logic behind the campaign's scheduling strategy, spokesmen did not return requests seeking comment.
Moreover, during his time away from the trail, Paul has been able to lean on the millions in television and radio ads he had spent in each state, along with his enthusiastic volunteer corps.
Fleischer also suggested that it was fair for the press to ask whether Paul’s time off stemmed from age-related fatigue.
By all accounts, Paul, 76-years-old and an avid cyclist, is in good health.
“Running for president is grueling. It's incredibly difficult, even for younger candidates,” Fleischer said. “I'm sure the reason Ron Paul's taking time off is because he needs to and deserves to. But he's doing it without being criticized any other candidate would be by the press.”