Web Helps to Amplify Presidential Campaign Of Iconoclastic Texan
By JACKIE CALMES
Computer engineer Jonathan Morey says, "I have never voted for a Republican, ever." Nathan Hansen, a lawyer, says, "I've been a Republican all my life." Yet a political meeting in St. Paul, Minn., brought the 31-year-old friends together for the first time -- in support of presidential candidate Ron Paul.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Officially, Mr. Paul is a Republican, elected to Congress 10 times and now running for the party's presidential nomination. But the party label hardly describes the obstetrician from south of Houston. And it certainly doesn't explain his appeal to a growing, if still small, number of voters across the political spectrum, many of them much younger than their spry 72-year-old idol.
The iconoclastic "Dr. Paul" is a libertarian advocate of minimalist government, a foe of the Federal Reserve and anything else not explicitly allowed by the Constitution, and perhaps the most antiwar candidate in the race. Thanks to the unprecedented number of early debates, he has been able to share the stage with his better-funded Republican establishment rivals.
But it is the Internet that has amplified his message and introduced Mr. Paul to voters alienated from both parties. His rise, though modest, is testament as well to the power of his noninterventionist message, even in a party led by President Bush.
As polls track the public's disaffection, political strategists are on alert for a third-party movement. Paulites insist their man can win the Republican nomination, though he has gone from zero to just 2% in polls. If he can't, their fervor suggests they would push him to run independently. But having run as a Libertarian in 1988, when he took just 0.47% of the vote, Mr. Paul has discouraged such speculation.
The Web "is redefining what a grass-roots campaign looks like," says Mr. Morey, the computer engineer. More than other candidates' fans, Paul supporters take matters into their own hands, planning events and raising money in a decentralized process that parallels Mr. Paul's vision of what government should be. Aside from his own Web site, there are free-lancers' DailyPaul.com and RonPaulLibrary.org ("the world's largest collection of writings by Ron Paul"), among others, MySpace "friends" groups and YouTube video-sharing.
It has meant $3 million to Mr. Paul, making him fourth among eight Republicans in fund raising and first among the five dark horses in cash on hand. But the netroots' bottom-up energy poses challenges, too, for a campaign trying to channel if not control it. "We're running a campaign, and we'd like to think we know what we're doing," says deputy campaign manager Joe Seehusen. "And then there's this thing called the Internet, and that has a life of its own."
Messrs. Morey and Hansen met late last spring at a local Paul gathering they had learned of through Meetup.com. Such social-networking Web sites have become an organizing and fund-raising tool for other campaigns, but they are particularly valuable for shoe-string operations such as Mr. Paul's.
RIDE A DARK HORSE
• The Man: Rep. Ron Paul barely registers in presidential polls, but the Republican's libertarian, iconoclastic positions draw growing support from across the political spectrum.
• The Plan: Through the Internet, fervent 'Paulites' have built the candidate's modest warchest and helped raise his profile in straw polls.
• The Upshot: Paul remains among the longest of longshots in his party, but supporters insist the Internet has empowered grass-roots efforts such as theirs.
The men recall about 30 people at that meeting, a number that grew at subsequent gatherings to more than 200 before members began breaking into subchapters. The pair still occasionally attend Minneapolis-area gatherings, but mostly they have taken to acting independently. Though from different parties, they got behind Mr. Paul for similar reasons: They share his stands against what they see as an illegal war, erosion of individual rights and a government that is too big, secretive and corrupt.
Mr. Morey, who bikes to work in T-shirts he emblazoned "Who is Ron Paul?," drove alone to Iowa in June, after learning online that Mr. Paul was being excluded from a Republican debate co-sponsored by the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowans for Tax Relief. Organizers said Mr. Paul didn't have enough support. In Des Moines, Mr. Morey joined about 1,000 others responding to online alerts. Outnumbering the debate audience, they marched past shouting "Ron Paul! Freedom!" and drew sympathetic media attention statewide.
In early August, on a lark, Messrs. Morey and Hansen drove south to Iowa State University for state Republicans' straw poll, a traditional barometer of candidate strength in the state with the first nominating contest. The decisions of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson not to actively campaign for the poll raised the stakes for underdogs like Mr. Paul.
Rivals, especially wealthy former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, bought thousands of the $35 tickets that supporters need to vote. Paulites launched "Adopt an Iowan" online and raised more than $19,000 for tickets. While Mr. Romney had buses, hotel rooms and meals for his supporters, Messrs. Hansen and Morey came at their own expense, as did hundreds of others from as far as New York, Nashville, Tenn., and Seattle, even though only Iowans could vote.
Arriving on the Friday before the straw poll, the two headed to a live-music club on the campus for "Ronstock" -- Paulites' Woodstock of local bands, though the men were too late to catch Mr. Paul's brief appearance. Mr. Paul punctuated his stump speech -- "Regardless of what happens, the fight continues" for "national sovereignty and to defend our Constitution" -- by urging supporters to have fun.
On Saturday, Messrs. Morey and Hansen pulled into a parking lot alongside Romney buses. As mostly older passengers marched off in line behind Romney aides holding "Follow Me" signs, the two men chuckled at the contrast with the free-thinking, free-lancing Paulites.
The Iowa Republican Party rented space to candidates. Mr. Paul had one of the smaller, most isolated locations, but his tent was among the most crowded despite scorching heat.
Unsure how to help, the friends drove to a Sam's Club and spent $100 on bottled water. They walked around with a cooler in their "Who is Ron Paul?" T-shirts, doling out bottles to parched Republicans. That night, long after most people left, scores of Paulites stayed for the straw-poll results: Mr. Paul was fifth of 11 candidates, with 9.1% -- nearly twice the tally of absentees McCain, Giuliani and Thompson combined.
On Aug. 23, the men learned from a Meetup group of a Minnesota straw poll, sponsored by Republican state legislators for $100 a ticket, to be held that night. "I was a little hesitant to go and spend a hundred bucks," Mr. Morey said, "but I'd driven all the way to Iowa for a straw poll, so..."
They joined roughly 150 voters, he said, and Mr. Paul came in third with 16%, behind Mr. Thompson's 21% and Mr. Romney's 20%. Mr. Paul has placed high at a series of local party straw polls this summer, given such self-motivated fans, and has high hopes for tomorrow's Republican straw poll in his home state.
Messrs. Morey and Hansen insist Mr. Paul "absolutely" has a shot at election. Mr. Morey says he used to lose sleep thinking of the country's problems. "Now I sleep fine at night," he says, "because I'm taking action."