The young Paulistas gathered to receive their marching orders. Get a haircut. Wear a tie. Be polite. Don't gratuitously annoy mainline Republicans. Leave the discussion of political philosophy to the candidate. Your job, they were instructed, is to win votes for Ron Paul.
That was the scene as described to me in New York City this summer. Since then, it has become standard operating procedure for the activists once dismissed as the "Ron Paul kids" during their long march through the GOP.
"No tats," one young Paul volunteer told the New York Times he was advised. No "fraternizing in the dorms, nothing like that." No scruffy beards, boozing or even impolitic tweets either. Don't do anything that will hurt the cause. Instead ask yourself, "What would Ron Paul do?"
In 1968, door-knocking hippies cut their hair and dressed in the wardrobe of the establishment in order to support Eugene McCarthy's antiwar candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Their slogan was "Get clean for Gene."
McCarthy didn't make it to the White House, but he did unseat a sitting president with a stronger-than-expected showing in New Hampshire. Paul has already moved into the top tier in Iowa and New Hampshire. Few will be surprised if he eclipses his 2008 tally of more than 1 million votes.
Getting clean for Ron would seem a taller order, since the target audience includes evangelicals and other cultural conservatives. But Drew Ivers, the man chairing Paul's Iowa campaign, previously guided Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan to second-place finishes in the caucuses. Having taken the silver twice, as Mitt Romney might put it, Ivers is looking for his first gold. This time Paul is making much more of his pro-life views and common ground with pro-family voters.
But the Ron Paul activists aren't just visiting the barbershop. They are mastering the arcane details of caucuses and conventions across the country in a quest to maximize their candidate's delegate totals. BuzzFeed reports that the Paul campaign has an organization in place "in ten caucus states besides Iowa: Colorado, Washington, Maine, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and North Dakota," plus a base in Alaska and Hawaii.
It may not add up to a "secret plan to actually win," as the news website put it. But it could allow Paul to go into the convention with enough delegates to be noticed rather than relegated to a counter-convention across the street. That will create its own problems for the GOP, but also opportunities for a young movement.
"We learned a lot of lessons from last time around," says Jeff Frazee of Young Americans for Liberty, a group not affiliated with the Paul campaign but made up of the candidate's supporters. "We know how to channel the enthusiasm into productive purposes."
Those "productive purposes" include making inroads into the mainstream of the Republican Party, where Paul's strict constitutionalism and stringent fiscal conservative is more in vogue than four years ago. Even the antiwar stance has a wider reach than in 2008. This is especially true among Republicans between the ages of 18 to 34, where Gallup finds Paul leading the field.
In some cases, Paul supporters are becoming the mainstream Republican Party. They have achieved critical mass in GOP central committees in states as diverse as Iowa, Nevada, and Maine. A bona fide Ron Paul Republican, Rep. Justin Amash, holds a House seat in Michigan. Paul's son Rand is the junior senator from Kentucky, after beating both an establishment Republican and the Democratic nominee -- who ran very similar anti-Paul campaigns -- by landslide margins.
Not every Paul backer has gotten the memo to behave according to Emily Post-approved etiquette. The online contingent can be as obnoxious as ever, alienating even people who are sympathetic. As a poster lamented on one of the largest pro-Paul forums, "Some of our supporters have the marketing skills of Joseph Stalin."
Yet for many of these youthful activists, the Ron Paul campaign will end up being a formative experience like the Goldwater campaign -- and yes, the McCarthy and McGovern campaigns -- were for their elders. Win, lose or draw in Iowa, they will be a force in politics for years to come.
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