Ron Paul is as surprised as anyone at the near messianic zeal he inspires
By SARAH LIEBOWITZ
Ron Paul doesn’t understand his own success. He didn’t know his calls for an end to the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education would draw cheers, that his anti-income tax, anti-foreign intervention and libertarian message would resonate. He was reluctant to run for the Republican presidential nomination, he said yesterday: He was convinced it would take another “generation for education” before his message – rooted in Paul’s reading of the Constitution – gained traction.
“I have been just dumbfounded about what’s happening,” Paul said yesterday in Manchester’s Veteran’s Park, where roughly 500 supporters gathered for a glimpse of the presidential candidate. “I’ve been talking this way for 30 years. But something, something special is happening.”
To attend a Ron Paul event is to see where some disaffected Democrats and Republicans have turned. There were anti-war activists and fiscal conservatives, opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement and proponents of tougher border security. And there were those who scarcely paid attention to politics before discovering Paul, many driving hundreds of miles for the hour-long rally.
Many of them supported Paul’s candidacy with an almost messianic zeal.
“He’s the most wonderful human being in America now!,” Sydney Walsh of Troy exclaimed after posing with Paul for a photograph. She quickly modified the statement with “besides my husband.”
The conclusion of Paul’s speech elicited a reaction worthy of a rock concert. Members of the audience chanted his name. Several jumped up and down. Descending from the stage (which was outfitted with a sign sporting a giant picture of the candidate), Paul found himself surrounded by supporters snapping cell-phone photographs. Two women turned so Paul could sign the backs of their T-shirts.
Surrounding the park, cars sported license plates from throughout New England. Along with his wife and daughter, Travis St. Germaine drove four hours from his home in Plattsburgh, N. Y., to see the man St. Germaine described as “a champion of the Constitution.” Tom Sheehan, of Norwich, Conn., walked the park in what he described as a “colonial, Minute Man” get-up: white socks pulled over the bottom portion of his pants, vest, old-fashioned backpack with a Ron Paul sign extended from the top.
Joan Donahue, of Nashua, described her Paul awakening as “an epiphany; it’s the wake-up-from-the-slumber thing.” Previously a registered Democrat, Donahue learned about Paul on an anti-war website (among Republican presidential candidates, Paul was the sole opponent of the war in 2002). “He’s the only anti-war candidate, and the only candidate who puts America first.”
At first glance, Paul is an unlikely political phenom. A great-grandfather who delivered more than 4,000 babies as a doctor in Texas, Paul seems mild-mannered and thoughtful. As a Republican congressman, he often stands alone. He voted against the Patriot Act and against authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq. In 1988, Paul was the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate.
But as discontent with the war in Iraq continues to grow – and with many Republicans frustrated by the level of government spending – Paul won a devoted following and became an internet darling.
“You look at what Republicans have said over the years; I’m more Republican than they are,” Paul told reporters before the morning rally. “Most of the Republicans, especially the leadership in Washington . . . don’t believe in their own programs. And I think that’s why they’re losing.”
Paul extended his small-government ideals to his personal life. As a doctor, he refused to accept government insurance such as Medicaid because, he said, “I thought that was one stop too far.” If a patient couldn’t afford treatment, “I just took care of them.” As a lawmaker, he’s chosen not to participate in the congressional pension program.
Although he lags behind other candidates in opinion polls, Paul has swept some online surveys. And courtesy of the internet, Ron Paul meet-up groups formed as far away as Baghdad (”this thank-you note, I don’t know whether this goes to Al Gore or where, but we have to thank somebody for the internet,” Paul quipped).
Fundraising success and interest in the campaign – Paul described his opposition to the war as “a big attention-getter” – have transformed the operation. The campaign originally focused on three states: New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. Now, Paul said, he’s looking at other states, especially those with so-called open primaries, in which independents can vote.
But Paul is quick to ascribe his campaign’s success to the message, not the messenger.
“I still don’t think it’s me as much as the message,” Paul told reporters yesterday. “The frustration level is much higher than anybody anticipated. People realize that we are in a period of major change in this country. We are on the verge of a bankruptcy, the dollar is crashing, the foreign policy’s in shambles and the people’s personal liberties are under attack.”
At the Manchester rally, he was even more pointed: “I am not a prophet,” he reminded the crowd.
Prophet or not, voters seemed happy to follow. “I’ve been voting in presidential elections since 1972, and this is the first time there’s a candidate I can vote for,” said John Lewicke of Mason.
“Ultimately his message returns us to the principles of our founding fathers and our great state,” said Tom Gilligan, an Allenstown selectman. As for Republican leaders, “I think they’ve disappointed their base, and the amount of support Dr. Paul has should demonstrate that.”
Yesterday’s rally was a family affair. All but one of Paul’s five children made the trek, along with 16 of his grandchildren and his great-grandson. Several served as warm-up acts, with two of his grandchildren serenading the crowd with “The Ballad of Ron Paul” (”Ron Paul went off to Congress to fight for you and me . . . Start by cutting out the waste and trim taxes more”).
Paul’s son, Rand Paul, used his time on stage to make a dig at one of his father’s Republican primary opponents. Pretending to receive a call on his cell phone, Rand Paul told the crowd, to boos, that Rudy Giuliani was on the line. “He says that he doesn’t have any family members who will campaign for him and he wants to know if he can borrow some,” Rand Paul said, referring to Giuliani’s strained relationship with his children.
Then it was time for Ron Paul, his slender frame clad in a pale green dress shirt and dark slacks, reached the platform.
“Some people have labeled this a revolution,” he told the crowd. “I would say this is a grand day for a revolution.”