DURHAM, N.H. - JANUARY 6: Christopher Way, a Ron Paul supporter, after a town-hall-style discussion with Paul at the University of New Hampshire. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The libertarian prophet of American decline arrived at a Granite State auditorium Friday evening with no fanfare and few bodyguards.

“Dr. Paul?” said a man near the door, who in the past three years had gone from believing in Barack Obama to believing that the country is sliding toward total economic and social collapse. Christopher Way, 32, a technician for the event, held out a microphone to the man he hopes will become president.

“Is this mine?” Ron Paul asked, taking it, smiling slightly at the new convert and walking onstage, where he drew long cheers from an audience full of Christopher Ways, an eclectic mix of young and mostly white men who were not just undeterred by the candidate’s third-place finish in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, but somehow more motivated by it.

“The job of a president is to protect your freedom,” Paul told them. “It isn’t to run the world, it isn’t to run the economy, and it isn’t to run your life.”

Way, a new husband and new father who said he wants more than anything in the world to be a responsible adult, nodded and clapped.

He had already heard Paul speak on C-SPAN dozens of times. He had read and reread the 1970s book “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” about international banking magnates and the loss of civil liberties, which, he said, “totally relates to today.” He had become steeped in the details of monetary policy, economic bubbles and national security issues, all of which for him add up to an increasingly bleak picture of America — which helps him understand the increasingly trying circumstances of his own life.

“Once you see the truth, it can’t be unseen anymore,” Way likes to say. And these days, he is trying to figure out what he is supposed to do about that, about the overwhelming prospect that American civilization is crumbling.

He had already bought a 9mm semiautomatic Springfield for protection. He had started stockpiling canned food. And now in the morning mail had come a more immediate reality: a foreclosure notice.

As he left the auditorium four days before the New Hampshire primary, he picked up a tall stack of “Ron Paul revolution” brochures and headed into the cold evening.

Steadfast supporters

In this Republican primary season of fickle voters, Paul supporters are unique in their steadfast devotion to a man they often see less as a candidate than as a cause.

Although doing well in Tuesday’s primary is important to his followers, they also tend to see themselves as players in the grander struggle Paul describes: one in which decades of government expansion, disastrous economic policy, unjustified foreign meddling and lapsing civil liberties threaten to undermine the republic — unless, that is, people wake up from their nanny-state subservience and save the nation from tyranny.

It is a dark if oddly energizing vision that has especially resonated with a young, male demographic. According to exit polling, 40 percent of Paul’s Iowa backers were men younger than 45, and 46 percent earned $50,000 a year or less. Roughly nine in 10 Paul supporters are white, similar to the racial makeup of Republicans overall, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls. Anecdotally, Paul’s backers tend mostly to be disillusioned Republicans, although his crowds these days routinely have a smattering of disillusioned Democrats, too, a group that now includes Christopher Way.

He has a trim, slightly graying beard and the affable demeanor of a bartender, which he was during his 20s, when he also sang for a band called Good Morning Chester. It was a blissfully nihilistic period that tapered off after he got a job handling classroom technology for the state university and that officially ended when he married his girlfriend.

To his surprise, he woke up the next day feeling different — “like I’m committed to this, to something, at least,” he said. And then came the day when a nurse handed him his newborn daughter, Lily, who is 3 now, and a feeling closer to shock came over him.

“It was like this rush of realism,” he said. “Like I’m responsible for leading my wife and my baby down a path, for finding our way through. And I thought, ‘What kind of world am I bringing her into?’ ”

So he started to read, from the 9/11 Commission report to anarchist tracts to theories about the domination of the financial system by secret networks of global elites. He read about U.S. government experiments on black Americans with syphilis. The Vietnam War. The economic crisis, derivatives, the bank bailout — until he wound up on Paul’s Web site.

The smiling, grandfatherly figure focused Way’s newfound skepticism in a manner that struck him as sane, educated and honorable. The preacher of less government, more personal liberty and more personal responsibility had found an audience.

“It was just, wow, this guy makes sense, and he’s been making sense for 30 years,” Way said. “I started to feel like doing something.”

And that, in turn, led to the recurring question that was on his mind when he woke up Saturday morning:

“So, I’m fairly convinced that the government doesn’t have people’s best interests in mind and they’re probably disgusting criminals, okay? So, how do I be a part of a system that disgusts me?”

Some days, he’d answer this question by walking around town in a Ron Paul T-shirt and starting conversations. One day, he put on his Springfield and pushed Lily around for a stroll, testing the state’s open-carry gun laws.

On this morning three days before the GOP primary, he grabbed his Paul brochures, got into his minivan and drove over to the Hannaford grocery store, where he spent an hour tucking words about liberty under icy windshield wipers in the parking lot. Then he went to a doughnut shop to warm up and thought about the foreclosure notice as he sipped coffee.

He was waiting for a call from his lawyer about filing for bankruptcy, which he hoped would allow him and his wife to keep their house. They could no longer afford the mortgage payments since his wife became ill with a muscular disorder and was unable to work.

Way was stoic — “I get it, we can’t stay in a house we can’t pay for,” he said, in the libertarian spirit. But the Paul convert now worried about the inherent conflicts between that spirit and other parts of his life.

Lily, for instance: He wondered whether he’d messed up her life forever by getting her a Social Security number, which, according to his new worldview, bound her contractually to a dubious system of laws and regulations, but which she needed to get health insurance.

His wife: He wondered whether his deepening commitment to Paul was making him a better husband or interfering with his commitment to her.

Their finances: He had spent hours thinking about his mortgage situation, which on one hand made him part of a deeply corrupt banking system. On the other hand, precisely because the system was flawed, he might be able to catch a break from one of the mortgage-relief programs.

It was all confusing, so he was waiting for a lawyer to help sort it out. His phone rang.

“Hello?” Way answered, and stepped outside into the parking lot.

The lawyer told him that the bankruptcy could proceed but that it would not save the house. Way’s family would have to leave in a matter of weeks.

Seeing his comrades

“I’m not going to cry in my Cheerios over here,” Way said later, shoring himself up as he drove down the highway toward a bar in Manchester to watch the presidential debate with other Paul supporters.

He had never been to this sort of Ron Paul meeting, and this was a chance to see who his comrades were.

Arriving in Manchester, he drove by the college where the debate would be held; it was a scene of satellite TV trucks and Occupy Wall Street protesters around a jazz ensemble labeled “Leftist Marching Band.” Way rolled down his window.

“We’re fighting for you!” one of the protesters yelled at him as he drove on. Finally he pulled up to the bar, a warehouse-like space in an old converted mill where a band called Golden State was playing. To his surprise, it was packed.

“God,” Way said, wading into a sea of young, white, male faces and Mylar balloons. “It’s all Ron Paul people.”

He passed a guy with blue hair and another in a pinstriped suit. There were people wearing
T-shirts that read “Tyranny Response Team” and “I Am Not a Terrorist,” and here came a few Occupy Wall Street protesters.

“Strange,” Way said, grabbing a beer and sitting down at a table with two young volunteers, both Republicans for Paul.

“Four years ago, it was nothing like this!” Phillip Saxton, 30, yelled over the band. He had come from New York. “So how did you find out about Ron Paul?”

“It grew out of a search, really,” Way shouted back.

“Yeah, that’s right!” said Nathan Warren, 25, who’d come from Texas. “I remember the first time I read Ayn Rand,” he said, referring to the literary heroine of libertarianism.

Way nodded, although he had not yet gotten to Rand.

“Once you see the message, it’s hard to go back,” he yelled, trying to connect.

“When I heard about Ron Paul and liberty, it was like a self-
discovery,” Saxton said, and Way mostly listened as the two talked about their journeys away from an establishment in which they felt powerless and into a world of ideas where they were encouraged to tote guns, stockpile food, take responsibility and reclaim their power as citizens.

Way’s phone rang — his wife. He stepped away, then returned as the faces of the candidates appeared on at least a dozen large-screen TVs around the bar. He watched quietly as others cheered Paul and heckled Mitt Romney with “I don’t want you to lead me!”

Afterward, the band introduced Tom Woods, “a rock star in the libertarian movement.”

“I [expletive] love Tom Woods!” an apparently drunk man yelled toward the stage.

“How many of you can say that Ron Paul changed your way of looking at the world?” Woods yelled into the crowd.

People cheered.

Way yawned.

It was late, and he was exhausted. He was losing his house. His wife was upset. He looked around the room at young men getting drunk, at band members, at a table of chicken fingers. It all reminded him of his 20s, of a frat party he’d outgrown.

“I don’t need to listen to this guy anymore,” he said as Woods went on.

He was happy to see the big crowd for Paul. He was hopeful about Paul’s chances Tuesday and beyond.

“The momentum is definitely there,” he said. “The movement for liberty is growing.”

And Way had become serious about that. He would liberate himself. He left the bar and walked outside. He needed to get home.

Staff polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.