Ron Paul Nation: the Other Convention in Town

By Beacon Staff

If some John McCain supporters suffer from what pollsters have called an “enthusiasm gap,” those of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul might be accused of an enthusiasm surplus.

More than 10,000 members of the Ron Paul Nation paid $17.76 (get it?) to attend a convention in Minnesota to celebrate the Texas congressman’s candidacy and advance his antiwar, anti-government, pro-Gold Standard agenda among Republicans at the official GOP convention in nearby St. Paul.

“Ronvoys” of chartered vans have been streaming in since the weekend. Supporters are camping at an organic dairy farm in Goodhue, Minn., that is home to “Ronstock ’08,” a six-day culture-fest where the farmer’s neighbor has reportedly donated a cow to the food offerings. And thousands are expected in downtown Minneapolis Tuesday for the 10-hour marquee “Rally for The Republic,” featuring speakers from former governors Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and Gary Johnson of New Mexico to antitax activist Grover Norquist and MSNBC correspondent Tucker Carlson.

“I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, and there’s nobody else out there that has that combination,” Linda Barr, a retired journalist from Pe Ell, Wash., population 700, said at a musical celebration Monday night in this suburb north of Minneapolis. “Have you heard of the statement ‘Ron Paul cured my apathy’? That’s it in a nutshell.”

As some political experts see it, the Ron Paul phenomenon reflects deepening fault lines in the Republican party, which has struggled in recent years to hold together its coalition of small-government activists, social conservatives, and defense hawks.

Many Paul supporters “have no particular internal coherence but use an opportunity like this to express that we need another way,” says Walter Stone, a political science professor at the University of California, Davis who has written about outsider presidential candidates. “People are latching on to him because he has a certain notoriety.”

But as others view it, the Ron Paul Nation is just as much a product of the blogosphere. “What Ron Paul shows is that in this Internet era you can identify a thin substratum of people across the country, energize them, and turn out 10,000 people in a basketball stadium,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But it can’t win elections and probably can’t affect the outcome of them.”

Paul finished second, ahead of McCain, in Montana and Nevada, and set a record for the largest online fundraising haul in a single day. But he won no primaries, seldom escaped single-digit poll numbers, and quit the race in June. All the same, his attacks on the Iraq war and US foreign policy stirred a ragtag army of supporters – from vegans to back-to-the-landers to gun-rights zealots – alienated by a Republican Party they see as adrift from its small-government moorings.

A ten-term congressman who once ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Paul has said he won’t vote for either McCain or Democratic nominee Barack Obama. But, he says, he won’t tell his flock how to vote.

The week’s mission, according to a Paul website, is a “clear call to the Republican Party to return to its roots of limited government, personal responsibility, and protection of our natural rights.”

Jesse Benton, a Paul spokesman, said that a good share of Paul’s army could be McCain’s if only the Arizona senator changed his mind on the Iraq war and America’s role in the world. “There are millions of activists out there at a time when the base of the GOP is shrinking, and they’d be excited and eager to get involved with the Republican Party if it stayed true to its traditions.”

Students of the political scene call a McCain-Paul rapprochement unlikely. Republican leaders rebuffed Paul’s request to speak at the GOP convention, largely because of his refusal to endorse McCain, aides to Paul said. (Spokesmen for McCain did not return phone calls.)

A New York Times poll of convention delegates released Sunday showed a party solidly – if not always enthusiastically – behind McCain. Of those surveyed, 95 percent said they would back McCain on the convention floor, with 1 percent each for Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Mr. Jillson suspects many Paul supporters will back McCain in November, even if they have to hold their nose.

But with some 15,000 reporters in the Twin Cities and official events scaled back because of hurricane Gustav, Paul supporters have a rare opportunity to steal some of the spotlight.

At the concert on a soccer field in Blaine Monday night, bikers in leather vests mingled with boys in tie-dye shirts, men in bowties, and women pushing strollers. T-shirts bore messages ranging from “Politicians Love Disarmed Peasants” and “Gold is Money” to “End the Fed” and “Truth is Treason in the Empire of Lies.”

“Republicans keep talking about the small government thing, and they don’t do it,” Richard Matthews, a Republican running for a Maryland Congressional seat, said beside the bleachers here. “Democrats keep talking about getting us out of the war, and they don’t do it.”