Twilight descends in new Hampshire as an old man climbs onto his soapbox. LIBERTY: TOO BIG TO FAIL reads a banner hanging in the jam-packed tent. He is hardly a commanding figure, but a thousand people chant his name and lean in to listen, ready to follow, as Ron Paul delivers his genre-bending stump speech. There are no focus-grouped slogans, no empty calories: Paul's talk is more like a high-fiber graduate seminar on economic theory, forgotten history and the nooks and crannies of the U.S. Constitution. "The Federal Reserve system and all their members have been counterfeiters for a long time," he says, his reedy voice straining. "Sound money is connected to free markets and the freedom message and the Constitution, and we can bring this all together for people. It fascinates me, and I'm sure it must fascinate a lot of you also."
In normal times, Paul's esoteric pitch might leave voters bemused, bewildered or just bored. But these aren't normal times, and the rapt crowd roars its approval. The attendees share his conviction that a great man has met his moment in history. "Our time has come," Paul declares, and this time, it may be more than wishful thinking.
For decades, the Republican Congressman from Texas has preached much the same brand of libertarian politics and Austrian economics. When he ran for President four years ago, Paul drew a zealous but narrow following, and his warnings that murky monetary policy, runaway spending and a sprawling foreign empire would ruin the country struck many Republicans as kooky. His GOP rivals smirked or simply ignored him. Although Paul raised a staggering $35 million, he captured just 1% of Republican delegates.
But in the four years since, the world has changed in mostly grim ways that seem to affirm Paul's worldview. His vision of an eroding Constitution and a Washington--Wall Street cabal helped spark the Tea Party movement. Conservatives who once sneered at his foreign policy as being "isolationist" have grown weary of war. His call for a more accountable and transparent Federal Reserve has morphed from quaint obsession to mainstream Republican talking point in Congress and on the campaign trail.
As presidential contender, Paul remains an extreme long shot. He lags behind central-casting candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in polls. The pillars of his libertarian philosophy--restoring the gold standard, abolishing the central bank, letting states legalize drugs, gutting the size of government and the social safety net, sharply reducing America's global footprint--are too radical for the typical suburban swing voter. Not to mention that the 76-year-old Paul would be the oldest ever first-term President.
But as prophet, he is still defining the GOP race. He came within a whisker of spoiling Michele Bachmann's headline-making win at the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll and helped end Tim Pawlenty's candidacy by denying him a second-place finish. When Republican heavies like Newt Gingrich and Perry bash the Fed's monetary policy, he mocks them as latecomers to his party. "Who would have thought the former Speaker of the House would come out for 'Audit the Fed?'" Paul says to deafening applause in Concord. "Now we have a Southern governor. I can't remember his name"--a wry reference to Perry, who suggested it would be almost "treasonous" for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to pump more money into the economy--"[who] realizes talking about the Fed is good too."
Paul still struggles to win the major media's attention, prompting Jon Stewart to compare his candidacy to "the 13th floor of a hotel." But Paul's allies say he's more interested in influence than political power. "He does not have a great personal desire to be the President," says Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign chairman and grandson-in-law. Instead, he is that rare commodity in modern politics: a man of ideas, however unconventional they may be.
The Making of the Maverick
Ron Paul's political epiphany took place on Aug. 15, 1971. That was the day Richard Nixon, hoping to boost a flagging U.S. economy, decoupled the dollar from the gold standard. Few people understood or cared about the change. For Paul, it was a calamity. "That was the moment I knew something very strange was going on in the government establishment," he recalls, sitting in a desk chair in his Concord campaign office. Paul believes that a currency unmoored from gold is based on, well, nothing, and that simply printing fiat money inevitably leads to ruin. "I thought it was just a total disaster," he says.
The mild-mannered Paul is an unlikely messenger of economic doom. Born outside Pittsburgh, he attended medical school at Duke and joined the Air Force in 1963. He served as a flight surgeon during Vietnam, an experience that convinced him the American "empire" is folly. As he built an obstetrics practice in Brazoria County, Texas, he spent his free time studying the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, giants of the Austrian school of economics, which champions unfettered free markets, individual rights and money backed by scarce commodities like gold and silver. "When I discovered people like Mises, to me they were geniuses," Paul says. "They could explain this stuff. It helped me feel comfortable that it wasn't only me in the world."
In 1974 Paul ran for Congress in South Texas, promising "freedom, honesty and sound money." He lost that race but won the seat two years later. Paul's latest campaign ad boasts that he is "guided by principle," and his record supports the claim. Though he represents a rural coastal district, Paul regularly votes against farm subsidies and flood insurance. He has never voted for a tax increase or an unbalanced budget. He opposed congressional medals for Rosa Parks, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa as well as aid for Hurricane Katrina victims, all on the grounds that Congress has no business meddling in such matters.
Paul isn't a pure libertarian. He doesn't support abortion or gay marriage; he believes those issues should be left up to states. But he has a coherent worldview: that individual liberty is the highest American ideal and a free-market economy its foundation. Paper money is a mirage predicated on trust in a government that can't be trusted. Fealty to the Constitution means accepting the parts of it you might not like, whether it's your neighbor's right to shoot heroin or gamble away his paycheck. "You can take your life and be very productive, or you can be destructive," Paul says, "but you can't meddle in other people's lives."
Paul's acolytes often speak of him in nearly messianic tones. "It's like a light switch going on. You see things you haven't seen before," says Doug Wead, a senior adviser who served under both George W. Bush and Bush's father. After Paul spoke in Concord, hundreds of fans thronged to greet him. Kate Baker, the national chair of a group called Women for Ron Paul, tried to organize a greeting line. "Ron Paul walks where he wants to walk and stops," she tells an eager fan. "We follow him."
A Revolution Matures
For a political prophet, paul isn't much of a speaker. He tangles his syntax and is prone to rambling. But one man's awkward is another's authentic, and when you are trying to sell a candidate as a truth teller, it's best if the packaging doesn't show: his newest ad contrasts him with the "smooth-talking politicians" he's running against. "We've run into Romney. We ran into McCain. Whenever you talk to them, you feel like everything they say is almost programmed," says Jesse Coffey, a 17-year-old Paul volunteer who is among the candidate's many young devotees. "When you meet Ron Paul, it's like meeting an old friend you haven't seen in years."
For the next hour, Paul stands in the gathering dusk, shaking hands, snapping pictures and signing memorabilia: $2 bills, a watercolor portrait of his face, a copy of the John Birch Society's magazine. "I'd ask you to sign my chest, but it probably wouldn't be appropriate," says one woman, who settles for her sleeve. A trio of young men, including one in a T-shirt depicting a vampiric George W. Bush sinking his fangs into Lady Liberty, crowd around the Congressman to vent about the treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army private imprisoned for allegedly slipping a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks. "They tried to throw Daniel Ellsberg in jail too," Paul says, shaking his head, recalling the furor over the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.
The 2008 Paul campaign was a ragtag coalition of anarchists, antiwar activists, goldbugs, paleoconservatives, hard-core libertarians and conspiracy theorists. His grassroots supporters threw raucous rallies, floated a Ron Paul blimp, lionized the 17th century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes--infamous for his attempt to blow up Parliament--and raised huge chunks of cash through online "money bombs." But his organization was hapless when it came to translating that enthusiasm into votes. "Last time, we didn't know what we were doing," says Chris Lawless, 42, a volunteer who voted for Paul back in 1988 when he ran for President on the Libertarian Party ticket. "We made WHO IS RON PAUL? T-shirts"--a reference to the "Who is John Galt?" refrain in Ayn Rand's libertarian touchstone Atlas Shrugged. "We had a freaking blimp."
Paul was almost a passive figurehead in that spectacle, putting his message ahead of campaign tactics. "His goal, I think, was to use his platform as a pulpit to keep talking about these things until people understood it," says Jim Forsythe, his New Hampshire campaign chairman. "Enough people understand it now. It's time to do something about it."
Convinced that he has a shot in 2012--a late-August Gallup poll showed him running nearly even with President Obama in a hypothetical matchup--Paul's aides have hired seasoned operatives and are more focused on ballot-box results, demonstrating early success at the Iowa straw poll. And Paul is still raising big money, including a $1.8 million money bomb to mark his Aug. 20 birthday.
There remains the matter of the candidate himself, though. "He's incorruptible," Wead says. "He just will not say or do anything that is not based on what he believes, even if it will help his cause. It's very frustrating, because at times using different language would be so much more politically effective."
Whether or not Paul attracts more votes than he did in 2008, his ideas have clearly taken on a life of their own. And that's what Paul says is most important. "I do what I do because I believe that truth wins out in the end," he explains. Even if his candidacy will have a hard time doing the same.
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