By ALEX WILLIAMS
A YEAR ago, Leon Lim, a 35-year-old doctoral student in Sanskrit from Dayton, Ohio, decided with his wife, Ranjani Powers, a yoga instructor, to head off to Bali, or India, or anywhere, really, just “somewhere very far away” — from the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and the tanking dollar, Mr. Lim said.
“We were just so disillusioned with the way everything was going,” explained the shaven-headed Mr. Lim, who wore a gold hoop earring in each ear. The couple had supported Ralph Nader in 2000, Ms. Powers said, but had since “given up on America.”
But they found an unlikely reason to stay: Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas who continues to run for president, even months after Senator John McCain has essentially sewn up the nomination.
The Lims were among 1,200 or so supporters in Louisville, Ky., on May 17 who greeted their candidate like a rock star when he walked on stage at a rally at the ornate Louisville Palace Theater. He wore a crisp dress shirt the color of mint ice cream and a color-coordinated tie, which made him look like an insurance claims adjustor.
“The war on drugs has wasted $300 billion and has undermined our civil liberties!” he said.
People in the crowd, many under 30, if not 25, rose to their feet and thundered in applause, even if they looked as if they had stumbled into a Republican rally on their way to the Coachella rock festival. In many cases, hair was aggressive, clothing artfully tattered. Beards seemed to have a mind of their own.
“I talk about bringing the troops home from Iraq, but also don’t you feel like it’s about time they came back from Korea, Europe and Japan?” the candidate then asked.
The audience whooped in approval, as if Ron Paul were a lead guitarist tearing off a solo.
Mr. Paul was supposed to be a memory by now. But in the Oregon primary last week, he won 15 percent of the vote, and the campaign appears to be growing into something beyond a conventional protest campaign. Some supporters have helped turn the outspoken congressman’s campaign into a colorful, loud sideshow with their guerrilla marketing tactics — self-penned Ron Paul anthems on YouTube, a Ron Paul blimp, T-shirts that portray Mr. Paul as a world-historical icon like Che Guevara.
Attendance at Ron Paul campaign stops has nearly returned to pre-Super Tuesday levels. A group of supporters recently announced plans to start Paulville, a gated community in West Texas, where believers can pursue the candidate’s libertarian ideals as a cooperative lifestyle. Ron Paul’s book, “The Revolution: A Manifesto,” rocketed to No. 1 on a New York Times best-seller list on May 18 (it has since dropped). Supporters are starting to discuss creating yippie-ish disruptions at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September to gain visibility for the movement.
Many supporters say that such gestures are not the final gasp of a failed political campaign, but a spark for a “revolution.” And Mr. Paul encourages such talk. When he speaks or writes of revolution, the congressman means it in the 1776 sense, except that the oppressors now live in Washington, not London. The candidate wants to turn back what he sees as 200 years of creeping expansion of federal power, dissolve the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service, return to the gold standard, bring the troops home, not just from Iraq, but from everywhere — and yes, legalize pot, at least for medical purposes.
This message has hit home — not only with some traditional libertarians, but also among a small but passionate group of young voters who came of age after Sept. 11, during the debates about the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and Abu Ghraib. For them, the Ron Paul message has the feel not of 1776, but of 1968, when an unpopular war raged abroad, and a subculture of disenfranchised young people embraced an unorthodox philosophy built around a utopian ideal of freedom.
Of course, Ron Paul is a lot closer to Barry Goldwater than to Eugene McCarthy. But his young supporters, many of whom call themselves former liberals, said the peacenik left shares much with the libertarian right.
“It’s about taking the country back,” Mr. Lim said, waving off the policy differences between his old “political saint,” Mr. Nader, and his new one, who is anti-Roe (Mr. Paul opposes abortion personally, but thinks states should decide the issue) and supports gun rights. “Whether you believe in abortion or not, in guns or not, that’s not the point,” Mr. Lim said. “It’s about the way the country is going: to hell in a handbasket.”
Mr. Paul’s voters tend to be younger and angrier than most Republicans. Exit polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan by Edison/Mitofsky showed that Mr. Paul’s voters tended to strongly disapprove of the Iraq war, and hold a far more negative opinion of the Bush administration than other Republican voters do. In Michigan, where Mr. Paul received 6 percent of the vote, 34 percent of Paul voters were under 30, compared with 13 percent of voters there over all. (Mr. Paul is also, largely, a guy thing. In the New Hampshire primary, where the candidate received 8 percent of the vote, his support was 77 percent male, according to exit polls.)
With young voters comes youthful enthusiasm. “This is the message of the Beatles, the Dylans of the world,” said Marc Scibilia, a 21-year-old songwriter from Buffalo, referring to Mr. Paul’s platform. Mr. Scibilia posted a video of his Paul-themed song, “Hope Anthem,” on YouTube, and this summer he will lead a 28-city “Freedom Tour” featuring other musicians. Mr. Paul’s message of freedom and peace is “an ancient message — it inspired people in the 60s and 70s,” Mr. Scibilia said. “I want to bring back that era of magic.”
Some supporters are as quick as Dylan fans from the 60s to label mainstream politicians as sell-outs and compromisers. They cherish their candidate’s outspokenness.
“Man, I’ve straight hated politics, I’ve just never liked the authority,” explained Tommy Rayome, 19, a “musician-slash-cook-slash-whatever” from Lexington, Ky., who was one of more than 600 people who showed up at last week’s Ron Paul signing at a Borders bookstore in Louisville.
Mr. Rayome, whose unkempt ash curls cascaded from a knit Rasta cap, wore an enameled American flag pin on his faded maroon T-shirt. He said that he fell for Mr. Paul almost instantly after his roommate, also a supporter, described the candidate’s lack of hypocrisy. (In Congress, Mr. Paul is known as Dr. No, for his staunch refusal to vote for any bill he thinks might expand government power.) “I said, ‘All right, I like him,’ ” Mr. Rayome recalled. “He’s a terrible politician, so he’s the best.”
Brad Linzy, who writes for a small entertainment magazine in Evansville, Ind., said that by now, Mr. Paul is more than a political preference. “The man is my hero,” he said. “He is a hero on the level of a Gandhi.” Adhering to the candidate’s calls for a hard-currency economy, Mr. Linzy, 30, keeps nearly half his savings in silver bullion, and scours antiques fairs and rummage sales for objects containing silver.
In this passionate support, some political observers hear echoes not from 1968, but from 1964 — when Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election but won a fervent following.
The youthful zeal of the Paul movement “does recall the early Goldwater movement, which was also jam-packed with people dropping out of graduate school, college, maybe even high school, to devote themselves 24/7 to what they called the ‘revolution,’ ” said Rick Perlstein, author of “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” (Hill and Wang, 2002).
And such movements don’t always stay in the margins forever, he said, adding that the young supporters who stumped for Goldwater’s failed presidential bid helped lay the seeds for the Reagan revolution 16 years later.
The figure at the center of the tempest looks like an unlikely political idol. Waiting in an empty green room at the Palace Theater before taking the stage, Mr. Paul looked slender, stooped, slightly sad. But that image dissolves when he begins to speak about the unlikely sense of community spawned by his traditional libertarianism.
“It does bring people together, people who were totally apathetic,” he said in an interview afterward. “They’re very diverse. But they understand the issue of freedom. There’s a reason for this. If you’re free to live your life as you choose and spend your money as you wish, you’re not competitive with other people, you don’t tell people how to live.”
Libertarianism and utopianism are part of the plans for Paulville, outside of Dell City, Tex. For now, the town is little more than an idea and a title deed to a 50-acre parcel of desert. The goal, according to www.paulville.org, is “to establish gated communities containing 100 percent Ron Paul supporters and or people that live by the ideals of freedom and liberty.”
For $500 apiece, the residents would buy shares representing one acre of land to homestead. The site contains no contact information, but land records indicate the first purchase was made by the Jason Ebacher Land Investment Group. Mr. Ebacher, a Ron Paul supporter in Farwell, Minn., did not respond to requests for interviews.
The candidate himself, however, has said that supporters should take the message out into the world, not hide from it.
At a recent mixer at a bar on East 15th Street in Manhattan, it seemed as if Paul supporters had built a community without the help of gates.
“Don’t you feel like an evangelist sometimes?” asked Rain Chacon, 36, a television writer and former Kucinich Democrat who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “It’s like, ‘Here’s The Book, have you read The Book?’ ” she said, wearing a Fleshtones T-shirt and cat’s-eye glasses and hoisting her copy of “The Revolution” into the air.
The assembled — a few women and about 15 men — cheered with approval. They talked about their beliefs in spiritual terms, using phrases like “seeing the light.” Those who follow “the movement” are termed “awake.” The fact that their candidate has essentially zero chance to be president did not seem to faze them.
“As Ron Paul said himself, the revolution has to be more than Ron Paul,” said Andrew Rushford, 25, a legal assistant who lives in Brooklyn. “To him, it didn’t start the day he was born. It started in 1776.”