By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007
On Technorati, which offers a real-time glimpse of the blogosphere, the most frequently searched term this week was "YouTube."
Then comes "Ron Paul."
The presence of the obscure Republican congressman from Texas on a list that includes terms such as "Sopranos," "Paris Hilton" and "iPhone" is a sign of the online buzz building around the long-shot Republican presidential hopeful -- even as mainstream political pundits have written him off.
Rep. Ron Paul is more popular on Facebook than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He's got more friends on MySpace than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. His MeetUp groups, with 11,924 members in 279 cities, are the biggest in the Republican field. And his official YouTube videos, including clips of his three debate appearances, have been viewed nearly 1.1 million times -- more than those of any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, except Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
No one's more surprised at this robust Web presence than Paul himself, a self-described "old-school," "pen-and-paper guy" who's serving his 10th congressional term and was the Libertarian Party's nominee for president in 1988.
"To tell you the truth, I hadn't heard about this YouTube and all the other Internet sites until supporters started gathering in them," confessed Paul, 71, who said that he's raised about $100,000 after each of the three debates. Not bad considering that his campaign had less than $10,000 when his exploratory committee was formed in mid-February. "I tell you I've never raised money as efficiently as that, in all my years in Congress, and all I'm doing is speaking my mind."
That means saying again and again that the Republican Party, especially when it comes to government spending and foreign policy, is in "shambles."
But while many Democrats have welcomed the young and fresh-faced Obama, who's trailing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in most public opinion polls, Paul is barely making a dent in the Republican polls.
Republican strategists point out that libertarians, who make up a small but vocal portion of the Republican base, intrinsically gravitate toward the Web's anything-goes, leave-me-alone nature. They also say that his Web presence proves that the Internet can be a great equalizer in the race, giving a much-needed boost to a fringe candidate with little money and only a shadow of the campaign staffs marshaled by Romney, McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
An obstetrician and gynecologist, Paul is known as "Dr. No" in the House of Representatives. No to big government. No to the Internal Revenue Service. No to the federal ban on same-sex marriage.
"I'm for the individual," Paul said. "I'm not for the government."
If he had his way, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education, among other agencies, would not exist. In his view, the USA Patriot Act, which allows the government to search personal data, including private Internet use, is unconstitutional, and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement are a threat to American independence.
But perhaps what most notably separates Paul from the crowded Republican field, headed by what former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III calls "Rudy McRomney," is his stance on the Iraq war. He's been against it from the very beginning.
After the second Republican presidential debate last month, when Paul implied that American foreign policy has contributed to anti-Americanism in the Middle East -- "They attack us because we're over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years," Paul said -- he was attacked by Giuliani, and conservatives such as Saul Anuzis were livid. Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan GOP, threatened to circulate a petition to bar Paul from future Republican presidential debates. Though the petition never materialized, Anuzis's BlackBerry was flooded with e-mails and his office was inundated with calls for several days. "It was a distraction, no doubt," he said.
The culprits: Paul's growing number of supporters, some of whom posted Anuzis's e-mail address and office phone number on their blogs.
"At first I was skeptical of his increasing online presence, thinking that it's probably just a small cadre of dedicated Ron Paul fans," said Matt Lewis, a blogger and director of operations at Townhall, a popular conservative site. "But if you think about it, the number one issue in the country today is Iraq. If you're a conservative who supports the president's war, you have nine candidates to choose from. But if you're a conservative who believes that going into Iraq was a mistake, Ron Paul is the only game in town."
Added Terry Jeffrey, the syndicated newspaper columnist who ran Patrick J. Buchanan's failed White House bid in 1996: "On domestic issues like spending and taxation and the role of government, Ron Paul is saying exactly what traditional conservatives have historically thought, and he's pointing out that the Bush administration has walked away from these principles. That's a very attractive argument."
Especially to someone such as Brad Porter, who obsessively writes about Paul on his blog, subscribes to Paul's YouTube channel and attended a Ron Paul MeetUp event in Pittsburgh last week.
The 28-year-old Carnegie Mellon student donated $50 to Paul's coffers after the first debate, and an additional $50 after the third debate.
"For a poor college student, that's a lot," said Porter, a lifelong Republican. "But I'm not supporting him because I think he could get the nomination. I'm supporting him because I think he can influence the national conversation about what the role of government is, how much power should government have over our lives, how much liberty should we give up for security. These are important issues, and frankly, no one's thinking about them as seriously and sincerely as Ron Paul."