The Libertarian Surprise: Ron Paul

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It is hard to say what the turning point was, when Rep. Ron Paul, the elfin libertarian from Texas with the penchant for lonely stands in the Congressional Record, became Ron Paul, beacon to disaffected Americans and accidental instigator of one of the more memorable grass-roots campaigns in history.

It may have been around the time that Paul stood up to Rudolph W. Giuliani. At a May debate, the former New York mayor interrupted a discourse by Paul on how the Republican Party had been led astray by an interventionist foreign policy that had, among other things, helped set the stage for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Giuliani, full of outrage, condemned the notion that "we invited the attack" and asked Paul to "withdraw that comment."

The crowd roared, but Paul held firm as he explained "blowback": "They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free," he said. "They come and they attack us because we're over there."

The exchange encapsulated the Paul phenomenon: He is willing to say things rarely uttered in polite company, much less in GOP establishment circles. Many of his arguments have nonetheless found enough support in a demoralized GOP Party that his rivals have not been able to ignore him. When challenged, Paul, 72, has held his ground, thereby providing inspiration to scattered legions who have organized an uprising on his behalf.

Describing this motley army is no easy task. There are (among many others) Taft Republicans wary of foreign entanglements, currency skeptics pining for the gold standard, constitutional literalists who see federal overreach at every turn, parents opposed to mandatory mental-health screenings in school, young folks utterly alienated from politics who see in a grandfatherly obstetrician the candor they crave.

Likewise, the forms that the uprising have taken are too many to number. There are the coordinated online assaults on Internet polls and political reporters who dare slight Dr. Paul; the printing press in New Hampshire owned by a Paul supporter that has churned out tens of thousands of fliers to distribute around the country; the one-day "money bomb" that shattered a record by bringing in more than $4 million. And the blimp, emblazoned with Paul's name, that is being flown to Boston for another "money bomb" commemorating the Boston Tea Party today.

Where will it all end? Many supporters hope Paul will run as an independent next fall. Paul has ruled that out, saying he remains focused only on the primaries, where he is poised to leave a serious mark. He has enough money -- and prospects for more -- that he could stay in the picture long into the nominating season. And he's threatening to break double digits in the New Hampshire primary, where he could embarrass other candidates, including Giuliani.

Asked to predict his New Hampshire showing in a recent interview, Paul smiled. "I think we'll do well," he said.

[Full coverage of Ron Paul on]

-- Alec MacGillis

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