Take a drive in the country in southern Wisconsin and you'll likely see the signs: "Ron Paul." They're not exactly everywhere, but there do seem to be many more of them than for other presidential candidates of either party. Something about Paul, a veteran congressman from Texas, strikes a chord with Wisconsin voters.
"He's a man who has a track record that you can see has not wavered and has adhered to the Constitution," says Adam Bachman, an Oregon resident who ventures to downtown Madison twice a week to deliver Paul's message, with a fervor verging on fanatical. "He's the only chance we have of uniting this country, healing our wounds and regaining our confidence and a power within ourselves."
Bachman, a Republican who regrets twice voting for George W. Bush, believes more and more people are coming to see Paul as the only presidential candidate capable of reigning in government, restoring civil liberties and ending the war in Iraq.
But the fact that Paul is a Republican, he admits, is hard for some Madison residents to look past: "It'll be hard to win some of these people." But Paul is no ordinary Republican.
Throughout his nearly two decades in the House of Representatives, Paul has operated from the party's flank. A staunch Constitutionalist, his no-taxes, small-government, non-interventionist, states' rights and civil liberties platform has won over the GOP's libertarians and mobilized throngs of young, Internet-savvy voters.
Paul remains a dark horse candidate, unlikely to win the primary in Wisconsin or any other state. But he has real appeal and not a little momentum, thanks to a fairly rabid pack of supporters who've utilized online networking sites, like meetup.com, to build a base of support.
This base has helped Paul exceed his fundraising goals for the last two quarters. He's now fifth in Republican fundraising, and that gap may be narrowing. In the third quarter, contributions to Paul's campaign rose 114%, while contributions to the Guiliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson campaigns slipped. Last week, Paul raised an extraordinary $4.3 million in one day, mostly over the Internet, a record among Republicans.
But his GOP rivals don't seem too concerned.
"Right now they're not acknowledging him," says Barry Burden, a UW-Madison professor of political science. "I don't know whether that's going to be to their detriment or not. The Democrats in 2003 were not acknowledging Howard Dean and it came back to bite them."
Paul's campaign is eerily similar to Howard Dean's ill-fated campaign for the 2004 election, which used the Internet to raise money and mobilize supporters. Unlike the other campaigns, which use a top-down approach to cyber-campaigning, Paul's campaign is wildly interactive.
"The Paul campaign speaks to its supporters directly and challenges them to do something," says Burden. "It has taken a bunch of cues from the Dean campaign, and it's surprising that he's the only one doing that."
Paul also shares Dean's enthusiasm for transparency. His website lists the contributions he's received by state, hometown and donor. He has strong support on the coasts and in the southwest, but is barely visible in the Midwest. Nearly 1,000 Californians gave money to Paul, compared to just 91 contributions from Wisconsin.
Paul's strong distaste for the war, income taxes, capital punishment, assaults on civil liberties, government spying and American meddling in foreign affairs, gives him considerable crossover appeal.
"On the social policy side, a lot of liberals might join him," says Burden. "He's especially appealing for young people. He's got a huge following on the Web and part of that is interest in liberty and restraining government from interfering in peoples' lives."
But Paul also taps into traditionally conservative themes, opposing abortion, gun control and government spending. While he'd like to repeal the PATRIOT Act, he'd also like to end Social Security and once called for shutting down the Department of Education. Student Sol Grosskopf, who is tired of the Bush years and wants to see the party move in a different direction, finds that refreshing.
"He's the only candidate who can bridge that gap between Democrats and Republicans, to really bring us back to our one nation, indivisible," says Grosskopf, who recently formed a Students for Ron Paul group at the UW-Madison. "He's the only candidate with morals and ideals, which he is willing to fight for in the face of adversity and despite the political winds blowing against him."
Paul has called for a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq and an end to U.S. involvement in foreign entanglements. He's chided his GOP rivals in debates to respect the constitutional separation of powers, and to acknowledge that decades of U.S. foreign policy have played a role in inspiring terrorist attacks.
"He's a real maverick. He has deep convictions about things so he acts on them," says Burden. "John McCain used to be considered a maverick, but he lost a lot of that when he basically endorsed Bush's policy on the war."
With the primaries just two months away, Paul still trails his GOP rivals with regard to both money raised and national prominence. Known as "Dr. No" in Congress, he has few actual accomplishments to speak of.
"He's really a second- or third-tier candidate and not really visible to those paying casual attention to news," says Burden. "Also, he's a member of the House of Representatives and that's all he is. We've never elected a member of the House directly to the White House, so that would be truly groundbreaking."
Paul has said he won't run on the Libertarian ticket, as he did in 1988, if he loses the primaries. But if his current momentum holds, that might be a hard promise to keep. And a third-party candidacy by Ron Paul would spell certain trouble for Republicans in 2008, just as Ralph Nader's Green Party bid did for Democrats in 2000.
Grosskopf says Students for Ron Paul already has several members, and is about to launch a recruitment drive. And Bachman, a registered member of the Constitutionalist Party, plans to continue educating passersby about Ron Paul. As he sees it, the voters carry most of the blame for America's current troubles.
"We have the government we deserve, in reality," says Bachman. "We're paying for what we asked for and right now we're very divided."