May 7, 2007 — -- Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who barely registers in public opinion polls of the Republican presidential field, won last Thursday night's debate.
That was the unmistakable conclusion of the online poll posted by debate sponsor MSNBC, which registered Paul with higher positive ratings and lower negative numbers than any of the other nine candidates on the stage.
ABC's post-debate Internet survey showed an even clearer victory for Paul, with the congressman taking more than 9,400 of 11,000 votes as of 12:30 p.m. Monday. (Rudy Giuliani is the next ranked candidate, with barely 150 votes.)
So are the polls missing a Paul boomlet? Is the famously contrarian ob-gyn -- a libertarian nicknamed "Dr. No" because of his propensity to vote against anything he believes contradicts the Constitution's original intent -- poised to surge into contention in the GOP field?
Not likely. What's more likely, based on Web traffic over the past week, is that Paul supporters have mastered the art of "viral marketing," using Internet savvy and blog postings to create at least the perception of momentum for his long-shot presidential bid.
Since online polls aren't scientific -- people choose to take them, and many people vote multiple times -- doing well in them doesn't necessarily mean a campaign is on the move.
But Internet buzz can have a carry-over effect, said Peter Greenberger, an online strategist at New Media Strategies and a former Democratic political operative.
"It's evidence of something -- either passionate supporters, active supporters, or just one very savvy supporter who's able to vote several thousand times," Greenberger said. "If it leads to one or two stories in the mainstream media, that could lead to a bounce online, and could lead to some fundraising successes."
With strong support among libertarians who are unhappy with the top-tier Republican contenders, Paul has a robust online presence.
His MySpace profile boasts nearly 12,000 "friends." Today, his name ranks in the Top 10 among blog search terms at Technorati.com, behind Paris Hilton but ahead of Mario Lopez.
After Thursday night's debate, the comment sections of several major news organizations -- including ABC's -- were inundated with pro-Paul messages.
Viewers raved about Paul's commitment to abolishing the IRS, his steadfast opposition to a national ID card, and a forthright tone that bloggers said set him apart from the other candidates onstage.
The Paul campaign did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail message seeking comment.