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Ron Paul is a Republican congressman and U.S. presidential hopeful who, in the usual shorthand of political journalists, is known as a "long shot" for the White House.
Paul's poll numbers award him less than 2 percent of the vote among Republican candidates, and he was unceremoniously excluded from an Iowa debate in June organized by a tax watchdog group that happens to share his political views. Even otherwise flattering articles consign his candidacy to "the realm of dreams, not practical politics."
On the Internet, however, this courtly Texas obstetrician-turned-politician has developed a towering presence that has left his Democratic and Republican rivals largely in his shadow.
"When I talk about Internet privacy and no taxes, I think they understand it."
--Rep. Ron Paul Paul, 71, enjoys about 160,000 mentions on Digg.com, more than the next four most popular candidates combined. Alexa.com's statistics show Paul's Web site with a narrow lead over all the Democratic candidates and a sizable one over his fellow Republicans. Similarly, a report by Hitwise puts Paul's Web site ahead of other GOP candidates in terms of popularity.
The libertarian-minded Republican enjoys a hefty lead in two unscientific online polls: 56.3 percent in one hosted by the conservative group FreedomWorks.com, and 56 percent a poll created by GOPstrawpolls.com, with undeclared candidate Fred Thompson coming in second at 18.7 percent. Paul is Technorati's most searched-for term, in front of stalwart contenders such as "iPhone" and "Paris Hilton," and recently reclaimed the spot after briefly falling behind a Puerto Rican singer with the undeniable advantage of having a sex tape on the loose. He's a close second to Barack Obama (and far outpaces Hillary Clinton) on Eventful.com's list of in-demand politicians, and, as a New York Times notes, is the most "friended" Republican on MySpace.
For his part, Paul attributes his online popularity to a set of beliefs that resonates with a younger crowd. "The whole message seems to be very attractive to young people," he said in a recent interview. "I think they like to be left alone. When I talk about Internet privacy and no taxes, I think they understand it."
Another factor is Paul's vote against the war in Iraq and his opposition to military action against Iran, making him unique among Republican candidates (and a rarity even among Democrats, after Obama reiterated during a debate that he would not rule out a nuclear strike against Iran). "Young people I think very naturally are opposed to the war that's going on," Paul said. "Soon they're going to turn 18."
This is not a new position: Paul also opposed the United States' first war against Iraq, and the war in Kosovo as well. His political views are broadly libertarian, which means supporting ideas like free markets (less regulation), individual rights (junk the Patriot Act), lower taxes (eliminate the IRS), and civil libertarianism (legalize marijuana).
An instinctive suspicion of governmental intrusions into regulating technology is a big reason for Paul's popularity in geek circles, which have long been irritated by laws like the Communications Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (One wag has quipped: "Libertarianism and Internet geeks go together like Guantanamo Bay and daily beatings.")
Paul has consistently voted against federal efforts to censor sexually explicit Web sites--a stance that nearly cost him his re-election bid last November when his Democratic rival cited those votes to argue that Paul was soft on porn. Paul, sometimes known in Washington as "Dr. No," risked opprobrium from fellow Republicans by voting against a law last year to restrict Internet gambling and has also opposed targeting the video game industry and giving federal police more Internet surveillance powers.
He received the highest score in the U.S. Congress, 80 percent, in CNET News.com's 2006 Technology Voter Guide. Clinton received a 33 percent score, Obama 50 received percent, Joe Biden received 38 percent, John McCain received 31 percent, Sam Brownback received 53 percent, and Dennis Kucinich received 53 percent.
The same supporters who have propelled Paul into an online lead have, however, drawn complaints for being what might be charitably described as overly single-minded.
The community-driven news site Digg.com has probably been the hottest flashpoint, with some readers complaining that Paul fans are unreasonably stuffing the site with articles about his candidacy. One example from last month: "Many of these stories are really, really, really boring. And I am a political junkie." There have been complaints of a "semi-organized effort by Paul supporters to promote him on Digg" and the creation of a "buryronpaul" blog.
Another explanation of his Digg presence--a Ron Paul video was the second-most popular article over the weekend--is that it reflects that many Internet users are drawn to Ron Paul's candidacy. And, as Paul's supporters have argued, supporters of other presidential candidates have plenty of reasons to manufacture Digg-related criticisms.
Internet video has become another important arrow in the campaign's quiver. Paul was the first presidential candidate with an iPhone application that lets campaign videos be viewed through the phone's Safari browser. His fans have also created the FreeMe.TV Web site with a collection of amateur and professional Ron Paul-related video clips.
Last month, Paul made what has become a now-obligatory campaign stop at Google that drew a standing-room only crowd. The moderator said "we've never gotten so many questions" aimed at any presidential candidate, and the YouTube video of Paul's appearance has drawn 165,000 pageviews so far. Videos of Clinton, Bill Richardson, McCain, and John Edwards appearances at Google have received a combined total of 66,000 pageviews.
During his tenure in the House of Representatives, Paul developed a reputation of being notoriously frugal, paying his staff less than their counterparts in other congressional offices in an effort to return money to the U.S. Treasury every year.
This frugality has carried over to his campaign headquarters, which until two weeks ago was housed in an office approximately the size of an average living room. Now it's in a larger but still nondescript building on Washington Boulevard in Arlington, Va., above a vacant dry cleaning business and next to a store called Casual Adventure that sells sleeping bags and backpacks.
On the second floor of that building, Paul's "eCampaign Director" Justine Lam shares an office with at least two other staffers that overlooks a Giant supermarket across the street. Lam previously worked at the libertarian-leaning Institute for Humane Studies, which is affiliated with nearby George Mason University.
Lam says that the campaign's biggest advantage is not so much any special technological tricks as much as Paul's steadfast opposition to things like the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. "The difference is really in the fact that we have a different message," Lam said.
A day after his appearance at Google, during which he defended the search company's right to expand to China even in the teeth of government censorship there, Paul showed up at a rally in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Lam was outfitted with a video rig that beamed images of the rally (and interviews with attendees) to the Justin.tv Web site.
The online politicking has translated into at least some fundraising success: according to figures released last month, Paul's campaign was in better financial shape than those of McCain, Sam Brownback, or Mike Huckabee, and had raised $3 million so far this year. Obama had about $34 million cash on hand, by comparison, and Hillary Clinton had $33 million.
Some activists close to the Paul campaign, who did not wish to be identified, said the outcome of the Iraq war will probably determine whether their candidate has a reasonable shot at winning next year's Republican primaries. It's possible, they believe, that voters would rebel against the pro-war Republicans and choose a candidate who has opposed it since the beginning.
While it may be possible, it would require a fundamental shift in American politics that happens only once every generation or two. A national telephone survey released July 24 by Rasmussen Reports puts Paul behind Clinton by 15 points and Obama by 20 in a head-to-head matchup. Sportsbook.com gives 7-to-1 odds for Paul to win the Republican nomination and 15-to-1 odds for him to win the White House.
For now, at least, the Internet represents the campaign's best hope of narrowing those odds. "It's a political equalizer," Paul said in an interview, referring to the Internet. "It really gives a chance to people who don't have $30 million."