Somewhere in an enormous hangar in North Carolina, enormous decals are being stuck to an enormous blimp.
"Who is Ron Paul? Google Ron Paul," the 240,000-cubic-foot zeppelin will read on one side and "Ron Paul Revolution" on the other when it launches from Elizabeth City, N.C., Monday and begins its slow, 300-mile-per-day float up the Eastern Seaboard to Boston.
People in their cars and on park benches, going about their daily lives, are bound to say something like, "What the heck is that blimp doing up there? Who the heck is Ron Paul?"
And that's pretty much the idea.
For all his recent buzz, Paul remains unknown to most Americans and his libertarian scruples, which set him apart in the Republican Party as the only GOP presidential hopeful against the Iraq War, also make him a stranger to Democrats, many of whom embrace his anti-war stance, but dislike his views on issues like abortion.
Paul's 08 Bid Takes Flight
With any luck, the dirigible will be in the Washington, D.C., skyline sometime in the afternoon on Monday, although there could be some airspace issues in the greater Washington area.
The plan is to have it floating over Boston Harbor by the weekend of Dec. 15, where Paul supporters will reenact the Boston Tea Party and hold a large rally at Faneuil Hall. His online supporters have a fundraising effort, which coincides with the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. For more on that, check out Teaparty.com.
If nothing else, the blimp will be unique as a campaign tool and could get the Texas congressman some free attention in the "mainstream media" as his supporters like to call it.
Hiring a blimp at great expense and without any campaign coordination seems like it would be a first in the annals of American elections. But there are no records to be found on such things.
Launching an Independent Campaign
Like many of the more successful ventures of Paul's presidential campaign, the blimp has nothing to do directly with Ron Paul the candidate. The tea party rally, for instance, has some of the same organizers as the blimp enterprise. While Paul may go to Boston, neither he nor his campaign are helping plan the event.
But they will benefit from the millions that will likely be raised that day, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and three weeks before the New Hampshire primary, where Paul is considered to have his best shot.
As campaigners, Paul's disparate and spirited supporters, though political novices, have shown themselves to be both creative in pushing their candidate and adroit in finding ways around both the traditional media and campaign finance laws.
A Former Election Commissioner Adds His Two Cents
For instance, supporters do not "contribute" money to a Political Action Committee. To fund the dirigible, they "buy" into a for-profit corporation called Liberty Political Advertising LLC. With the help of former federal election commissioner Brad Smith, the organizers are confident the arrangement "offers the best of both worlds, no limits and virtually no regulations."
Of course, there is the possibility that each of the more than 100,000 donators to the blimp enterprise could be required to file their own federal declaration form.
So far, the more than 100,000 supporters buying into the blimp have given anywhere from $25 to $5,000, according to Bryce Henderson, the media coordinator for Liberty Political Advertising, based in Simi Valley, Calif.
Individuals are limited by law to giving $2,300 to the Paul campaign, although it is fast approaching its goal of $12 million in fundraising between October and the end of the year. Achieving that goal will have more to do with the independent grass-roots efforts than with the Paul campaign.
Supporters Galvanize Around a PlatformPaul's supporters come from varied backgrounds and are sprinkled around the country, connected only by cell phones and high-speed Internet access. Most have never met each other in person or even seen Paul speak, but they have created a remarkable network of Web sites and e-mail lists committed to fundraising for and around their candidate.
"We also wanted to ensure that supporters who would have otherwise donated once, would feel compelled to donate again and again, thus increasing the overall funding for the campaign," said Eric Nordstrom, the active duty service member posted in England who created RonPaulMoneyBomb.com.
"Our entire goal was to form a Web site that would provide a funnel, which lead directly to Ron Paul's donation page. We are just average Joes trying to cast the largest $100, let alone the maximum allowable contribution to make, but they would have $25."
The official Paul campaign is mounting a more traditional effort with television and radio advertising as well as phone calls to voters in early primary states. The campaign's next TV ad, which was shot over Thanksgiving at Paul's home, will not even mention his Libertarian streak. It will focus on his personality and his family.
An Idea Takes FlightOnly last month, the Ron Paul blimp was just an idea being floated among supporters in e-mails and on blogs. But with the success on Nov. 5 of a one-day, Internet-driven fundraising drive pegged nominally to Guy Fawkes day and the old nursery rhyme "Remember, remember the 5th of November," novel ideas began to seem more possible.
Trevor Lyman, an online music promoter based in Florida who had set up the Web site This November5th.com started working with some other fans of the blimp idea in Colorado, California and elsewhere around the country.
They launched RonPaulBlimp.com and have been selling stakes in the leased blimp. He said he's confident the blimp violates no campaign financing rules even as it obviously sidesteps them, but said "it could be contested down the road."
Campaign finance experts not affiliated with the effort agree. "Given the way this came about, what they are doing and their stated goal, it is very possible they will still be considered a political committee. For one thing, they are going to have to show that this is truly a business," said Lawrence Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission now in private practice.
"It's almost too good to be true to have a client pop up as quickly as they have and just say do it," said George Spyrou, who owns Airship Management Services, the company Paul's supporters have contracted with.
"Frankly we didn't treat it that seriously until very recently," said Spyrou in a phone interview last week. "But it seems to be genuine."
Spyrou did not want to start prepping the airship until he was relatively sure the Paul supporters could come up with all the money. "It's quite an expensive beast to feed and water," he said.
And Lyman and his supporters do not yet have all the money they will need. But they have raised more than $150,000 and hope to be raise more than $400,000 soon. That would keep the blimp airborne through the Iowa caucuses, even if the blimp never makes it there.
After flying to Boston, it will head over to New Hampshire and stay in that early primary state until weather forces it down. "Weather permitting" is a big, unknown variable whenever one is dealing with an airship, according to Spyrou.
"If we have snow or strong winds we would rather not fly. Say anything above 15 or 20 miles an hour, we would rather not fly," he said.
Even if it is forced down in New Hampshire, the blimp will be moved south to warmer weather and the important primaries in Florida and South Carolina until supporters run out of money. At that point, many of the early primaries will be over and it will be evident whether or not Paul and his candidacy have run out of air.