Ron Paul’s newsletters and Mitt Romney’s Harvard years illustrate the mental approaches of the Iowa front-runners: Character Sketch

On martial law and growth-share matrices

A TV ad in Iowa ballyhoos Ron Paul as "the one you can trust." But while Paul's anti-government consistency may be rare in politics, his newsletter business during the early 1990s was a shell game worthy of P.T. Barnum. The un-bylined newsletters, which featured Paul's name in oversized letters, offered a continuing undertone of quasi-racist commentary. Asked about the newsletters, which were also an issue that dogged his 2008 presidential race, Paul told CNN last week, "I never read that stuff." This denial of responsibility is akin to the claims of Charles Barkley and Terrell Owens that they were misquoted in their autobiographies.

Paul is leading in many Iowa polls, but no one in politics (probably not even the 76-year-old candidate himself) believes that he will ever be more than an occasional visitor to the Oval Office. That has freed him from the sustained scrutiny of the news media, because his role is as a protest candidate rather than a potential president. But even if, as Paul claims, he had no idea what was going out under his name in the newsletters, the flap reminds us that a look at his overall fitness to be president is long overdue.

Candidate attacks this close to the Iowa caucuses normally have the accuracy of a seven-year-old with a can of spray paint. But Rick Santorum, campaigning in Mason City, Iowa, this week, was dead-on with his critique of his Republican rival when he said, "The things that most Iowans like about Ron Paul—his economic ideas—are the things he's least likely to be able to accomplish."

Of course, all the candidates are pretending to voters that Congress in 2013 will be a rubber-stamp body rather than one in which Senate Democrats will have the power to obstruct with filibusters even if they lose the majority. But Santorum went on to point out correctly that in the area of foreign policy, a president has vast powers beyond the control of Congress. As Santorum put it, citing Paul's Fortress America stance and exaggerating only slightly, "One thing he can do as commander in chief is he can pull all our troops home."

Paul's withdraw-from-the-world perspective is no secret to anyone who has ever watched a Republican presidential debate, but an equally important question is how he arrives at his views. Paul has a long record of seeing the world through the prism of outlandish conspiracy theories. Speaking apocalyptically about the federal government, he told the Washington Post earlier this month, "As conditions get worse, you know, they'll blow up the fears, both economic and the threat of terrorism, so that you can have martial law." In a 2010 speech, Paul talked about a "CIA coup" against America.

Eric Dondero, a former aide to Paul, wrote on the conservative blog Right Wing News: "The liberal media are focusing on entirely the wrong aspects regarding controversies on Ron Paul. It's his foreign policy that's the problem; not so much some stupid and wacky things on race and gays he may have said or written in the past." Dondero went on to claim that Paul "strenuously does not believe that the United States had any business getting involved in fighting Hitler in WWII." In response, the Paul campaign has described Dondero as a "disgruntled former staffer who was fired for performance issues."

There is something undeniably appealing about Ron Paul's different-drummer march through the Iowa caucuses. In an era of tightly wound and over-rehearsed presidential candidates, Paul is an antidote to traditional politics. Certainly, Paul is more substantively prepared for the rigors of the presidency than, say, Herman Cain, who could not remember what side Barack Obama had favored during the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gadhafi. But it is hard not to be troubled by a presidential contender who seriously worries that the government of the United States is secretly plotting to impose martial law.

If Ron Paul radiates irrational fears, then, at the other extreme, Mitt Romney is the embodiment of statistics-based rationality. The New York Times, in one of the best mini-profiles during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, recounted this week how Romney's worldview was shaped by his MBA from Harvard nearly four decades ago.

The Times story begins with a delicious anecdote about Romney using an arcane business school tool, a growth-share matrix, to demonstrate that it makes long-term economic sense for a corporate executive to reserve time for his wife and children. Kim Clark, a friend to Romney and a former dean at the Harvard Business School, described how the school's case-study method (no theory, just practice) "played to his natural instincts to be a problem solver, to be a person who thrived on facts and data."

Romney's central argument in this campaign is that his long and lucrative career as a business consultant equips him with the ability to create jobs in a troubled economic era. But equally relevant is whether the detached analytical style honed at the Harvard Business School is an asset for presidential decision-making. (George W. Bush, who also earned a Harvard MBA, was nonetheless an instinctive decider as president rather than a leader who visibly applied his educational pedigree in the White House).

The difficulty in applying business-school training to governing is that the presidency too often demands decisions based on unreliable data or none at all. Robert McNamara, who became the secretary of defense in the 1960s after a brilliant career as an auto executive (just like Romney's father), represents an extreme example of the failure of rationality. McNamara did not learn until too late that his carefully designed metrics, like body counts, to measure progress in the Vietnam War were tragically deceptive.

Nothing suggests that Romney would be nearly so coolly cerebral or wrongly confident if he wins the presidency. But, according to the Times, Romney told a business-school colleague after his failed 2008 presidential campaign that politics poses an unusually complex challenge. As the once-and-future White House candidate said at the time, "You end up taking into consideration things that wouldn't be important in a business decision."

Yet not everything in a presidential campaign is a proxy for life in the White House. After Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot, some pundits grumbled that this level of campaign disarray suggests that the former House speaker could never master the organizational demands of the presidency. The problem with this facile verdict is that it neglects the awkward detail that Rick Perry, a three-term governor adroit at wielding the levers of power, also failed to submit enough valid signatures in Virginia. Sometimes a campaign screw-up is just a screw-up--and not a metaphor.

After Gingrich failed to qualify in Virginia and melodramatically likened the signature shortfall to Pearl Harbor, Romney told Politico, "I think it is more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory."

It is a funny line--and since "I Love Lucy" dates from the 1950s, most campaign aides (unlike the 64-year-old Romney) would be too young to have concocted the comparison. Sometimes even the coolly rational Romney, a candidate who often struggles to make small talk with the voters, says something genuinely funny. Go figure.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best political stories? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.