By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007
STRAFFORD, N.H. -- There's no mistaking which house on Lake Shore Drive, about 45 minutes northeast of Manchester, is the one full of Paulites -- the intensely loyal, almost fanatical supporters of Rep. Ron Paul. Signs are everywhere. On the back window of a brand new black Toyota, on the bumper of a green Geo, on a white Volvo station wagon that sits beside a beat-up lime green Honda. "Ron Paul 2008."
"We can run the whole New Hampshire campaign right here," says Jim Forsythe, 39, a former Air Force pilot who's on his driveway in jeans, T-shirt and white socks. "We're the hard-core supporters."
Like Paul himself, the Paulites are against the war in Iraq, against the growing federal bureaucracy, against the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Education, the income tax, against, as Forsythe says, "politics as we've known it."
Inside Forsythe's kitchen, snacking on spinach dip, there's Kelly Halldorson, 34, a mother of three whose first presidential vote went to Bill Clinton. And Jane Aitken, 58, a retired art teacher who voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. And Will Albenzi, 28, a security guard who's gotten so disillusioned with the Republican and Democratic parties that he belongs to neither.
And this being the Granite State, the first primary state famous for its independent "Live Free or Die" attitude, there's Chris Lawless, a 38-year-old software technician who's followed Paul's career since 1988, when the obstetrician-turned-congressman ran for the White House as the Libertarian Party nominee.
In a state where Patrick Buchanan upset Bob Dole, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, more than a decade ago, anything is possible, says Andrew Smith, a pollster and director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center. As of last November, 26 percent of New Hampshire's electorate were registered Democrats and 30 percent were Republicans. But the biggest block of voters -- 44 percent -- were undeclared. Forty percent to 45 percent of those, Smith says, leaned Democrat and 25 percent to 30 percent Republican.
But whatever their backgrounds, the Paulites have catapulted a Republican candidate often described "eccentric," "unknown" and a "long shot" into a spotlight. Paul may be the candidate who has tapped into that independent and frustrated portion of the electorate that in every race is looking for a third way.
This month, the 10-term Texas Republican stunned the GOP field by raising a little more than $5 million in the third quarter, 70 percent of it from online donations; Sen. John McCain, once considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who placed a strong second in the Iowa straw poll in August, raised $6 million and $1 million, respectively. For months now, Paul has been the most popular GOP candidate on the Web, with more supporters on MySpace, Facebook and Meetup than Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney, who won the Iowa straw poll and leads in the polls here.
"Everyone -- the staffers in the other campaigns, the bigwig political observers in the state -- is scratching their heads. They don't know what to make of this Ron Paul phenomenon," pollster Smith says. A University of New Hampshire poll last month showed Paul at 4 percent in the state. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, also from last month, had him at 3 percent. "The other campaigns aren't worried that he'd win the primary. They just don't know who his supporters are and whose support he's taking away," Smith adds. "His poll numbers aren't high now, but it's only October. And they could see him getting 10 percent of the vote here. If you get 10 percent of the vote in a crowded field, well, you might finish third." But the Paulites are aiming for higher than third place.
Last week, they gathered at Forsythe's house to watch the latest GOP presidential debate. Forsythe is the most recent Paulite convert of the bunch. The father of two heard Paul speak in February and remembers how he derided big government and unnecessary wars. Says Forsythe, an aerospace engineer: "That really got me. I fought in Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq, the Iraq before this Iraq war.
"I just couldn't believe a politician was talking about these things," he says. "And the thing is, what's going on with Ron Paul, what he's tapping into, speaks to how much the Republican Party has lost its way."
* * *
Paul isn't using the Internet. The Internet is using him.
Yes, the 72-year-old's main headquarters sits in a nondescript office building in Arlington. But his real headquarters may be on the Web, where Paulites have organized, raised money and created buzz, all independent of the official campaign. Take Meetup. There are 994 Ron Paul Meetup groups, more than all the other candidates in both parties combined, and New Hampshire has four, the largest being Forsythe's. The group's name is HQNH, and its 418 members have their own Web site, where Forsythe is the blogmaster. Kate Rick, one of Paul's four staffers in New Hampshire, says HQNH is the candidate's most effective grass-roots operation, handing out literature at gun shows, holding up signs at fairs and canvassing. Rick should know. She helped start HQNH.
Some quarters of the blogosphere have obsessed over Paul's intense online following, but things kicked up early this month when Paul announced his third-quarter fundraising figures. Unlike the rest of the presidential field, Paul has consistently improved on his money haul, taking in $640,000 in the first quarter, $2.4 million in the second and $5.1 million two weeks ago. At least two-thirds of the donations, his aides say, came from the Internet. New Hampshire gave the most money per capita, according to the campaign, and the most dollars from one area came from Los Angeles County.
"This is the first politician I can truly support, ever," says 53-year-old William D. Johnson, who runs a law firm in downtown L.A. and has donated the maximum, $2,300. A former Democrat, he switched to the GOP because of Paul. "I don't agree with all his positions -- he's not as strong on environmental issues as I'd like -- but because of his record you know that he's a man of utmost integrity."
There are shades of Howard Dean here, the way the insurgent Democratic candidate embraced the Web in 2003. And shades of McCain, too. The Arizona senator raised $1 million in two days online in 2000 after beating Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
But the most fitting analogy, political analysts here say, might be Patrick Buchanan. Though Paul has not been a general in the culture wars like Buchanan, both men come from the old right of the GOP, pols who champion limited government and fiscal conservatism. Buchanan was barely registering in the New Hampshire polls months before his surprise defeat of Bob Dole in 1996.
"As surprising as Ron Paul's popularity is, you see where it's coming from. In an election in which a party doesn't think it will win -- and a lot of Republicans here have a perception that no matter the nominee, they're going to lose next year -- voters have an opportunity to vote with their gut," says the University of New Hampshire's Smith. "But what Ron Paul has to overcome is this image that his supporters are people with tinfoil hats on, folks on the fringes of society. I'm not saying that's the case, though that's the story line that the media has on him."
Adds Matt Lewis, a blogger and director of operations at the conservative site Townhall: "He's connecting online, no doubt about it. His antiwar and anti-big government message -- in a time of war and big government -- is carrying through. But how is all this money, all this online popularity going to translate to actual votes come primary day?"
With $5.3 million in his coffers, Paul is planning to spend more money in New Hampshire, his aides say. He's visited the state five times, they add, and recently bought his first radio spot. But the campaign is looking past New Hampshire, opening offices in Arizona, Utah and California. In July, the campaign had 10 staff members. Now it has 45.
In an interview, Paul says: "To be honest, I didn't think we'd be in this position, getting this kind of attention, having this kind of money. I tell my staff, 'Don't get bloated. Be careful with the money.' I've been saying the same things for a long time. But now more people seem to be listening."
* * *
Just how far do Paulites go to show their support?
Some stamp their money with RON PAUL. Others wear T-shirts that read: "Who is Ron Paul?" There are men who carry little Ron Paul cards and drop them on top of urinals, no joke. "You have to get creative. Sometimes guys need something to read in the bathroom," says Chris Richards, 38, who works in finance. Sometimes a Paulite gets too carried away and walks 38 miles -- from Dover to Concord, a day-long trek -- to campaign for Paul. After watching television pundit George Stephanopoulos tell Paul that he would bet his "every cent" that he won't be president, Halldorson, the 34-year-old mother of three, got so frustrated that she grabbed some campaign literature and handed it out all day. A video is up on YouTube.
"Have you ever heard the expression, 'What's wrong is right and what's right is wrong?' " Aitken, the retired art teacher, asks. "We've been doing things that are so wrong for so long that the right thing for some might feel freaky. Sometimes you have to stop and think, 'Okay, this is my conviction.' "