MANCHESTER, N.H. – You don't have to go to a Ron Paul rally to find Ron Paul's supporters. Wherever there has been a political event in New Hampshire in recent days, at least a handful of the Texas congressman's fans have shown up, waving their signs and shouting expressions of support for their candidate. They are the only Republican campaign that does this. You will never attend, say, a Newt Gingrich rally and find Rick Santorum's supporters waving signs outside, but the Paul people are ubiquitous here, just as they were in Iowa, and the question remains: Why?
Paul is likely to finish second here in the "Live Free or Die" state, after having finished third in Iowa, and it is difficult to imagine any scenario in which the libertarian-leaning Texan could win the GOP nomination. He does not have what the pundits call a "path to the nomination." And yet the implausibility of Paul's campaign does not seem to deter his notoriously enthusiastic supporters.
"President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!" hundreds of them chanted in a Nashua aircraft hangar Friday, expressing the least likely of all outcomes in this topsy-turvy Republican campaign. As absurd as such hopes may seem, however, it is remarkable that the candidate most likely to win – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – generates nothing like the excitement shown by Paul's supporters. Republicans are seemingly prepared to nominate the tepid "It's His Turn" candidate, while rejecting the only candidate in the GOP field who comes near to matching the cult-like following inspired by President Obama.
There are many mysteries to the phenomenon that is Ron Paul. How is it, for example, that a 76-year-old with a reedy voice – his appearance and manner not remotely "presidential" by the usual standards of the TV age – is an idol to so many youth? Polls in Iowa showed that Paul got 48 percent among caucus voters under 30, which might suggest that his libertarian-tinged anti-war message represents the future of the Republican Party. But that youth vote was only good enough for 21.4 percent of the total, because fully 60 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers were 50 or older. So the oldest candidate in the race, dismissed as a crackpot by most mainstream Republicans, is almost uniquely capable of attracting young voters to a party dominated by the gray-hair-and-bifocals set. However one attempts to explain this situation, it does not bode well for the GOP. And perhaps it doesn't bode well for America, either.
At an invitation-only event Monday at the historic Lawrence Barn in Hollis, one of Paul's supporters asked whether his proposal to end the deployment of U.S. troops overseas was opposed by many Americans because it involved a recognition that "our empire is shrinking and maybe they can't handle that." Paul answered matter-of-factly: "Empires always end, not because another military power comes along, but for economic reasons." He cited the example of the Soviet Union, which he said "went bankrupt," and then reminded his audience that the Soviets "were so foolish, they went into Afghanistan and got bogged down in Afghanistan" – clearly a jab at the most recent Republican administration. "I do not think an empire serves the interests of the freedoms of individual Americans."
Such talk is wild, dangerous, radical and extremist stuff, according to most mainstream Republicans, and yet it has garnered for Paul a following whose fanatical devotion is one of the great unavoidable truths of the 2012 campaign. However, because Paul's foreign policy views are so starkly at odds with the GOP mainstream – an outright repudiation of the Bush administration's War on Terrorism stance – the liberal media have generally treated Paul with a deference that his Republican rivals must envy.
No mainstream journalist, for example, seemed to notice the flyer the Paul campaign was distributing at their Hollis event that was obviously meant to pitch Paul to social conservatives. "I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and I endeavor every day to follow Him in all I do and in every position I advocate," the flyer quotes the candidate. "I believe marriage is between one man and one woman," the flyer quotes Paul as saying, expressing his support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that would "ensure that no state would be forced to recognize a 'same sex' marriage license issued in another state."
Nothing wrong with that, but other conservative Republicans – including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – have been harassed and heckled in New Hampshire for espousing such views. Many of Ron Paul's enthusiastic young supporters are in favor of same-sex marriage and seem to assume that their political idol shares their views. Yet Paul gets a free pass from the same establishment media that have sought to portray Santorum as a single-issue fanatic whose entire candidacy (according to them) is based on his religious zealotry and opposition to gay rights.
Whether one admires or condemns Ron Paul as a politician, his significance as a phenomenon is what should concern conservatives. At some level, the enthusiasm for Ron Paul represents a rejection of the recent Republican past – a symbol of the "brand damage" the GOP suffered during the Bush years, and from which they have not yet recovered, even after nearly three years of Obama's unpopular presidency. Whatever the percentage of votes Paul gets tonight in New Hampshire – polls indicate he should get about 20 percent – it should serve to remind Republicans of the work which remains to regain the trust of Americans haunted by the ghosts of Republicans past.
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