'08 Dark Horse Running Strong ... in Cyberspace

Republican hopeful Ron Paul is a rising star on the Internet.

June 2, 2007 — -- His name has shot up on the list of most Googled terms; it peppers the blogosphere; and it is attached to more than 100 networking groups on MeetUp.com.

He is Ron Paul and he is arguably the most popular Republican candidate ... on the Internet.

Dr. Ron Paul, an obstetrician from Texas, is a little-known Republican congressman running on a platform of limited government. In most national polls, he gets one percent or less of the vote.

But in Internet polls, Paul is frequently in first place.

"We think the Internet is the great equalizer," said Jesse Benton, communications director of Ron Paul 2008. "It is one of the last great, real vehicles of liberty."

Paul's star has been on the rise since the Republican debate on May 15, when he challenged Rudy Giuliani over 9/11.

"Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?" Paul asked. "They attack us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years."

Recently, Paul got huge applause when he appeared on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," something rare for a Republican. Next week, the candidate will be a guest on "The Daily Show."

Cynics suggest some of Paul's popularity is manufactured. Online polls and other Websites have accused Paul's supporters of spamming to make him appear more popular.

The campaign, however, insists the support is real. The day after the first Republican debate on May 3, the campaign Website had 706,000 visitors and, according to Benton, Paul has the most successful YouTube channel of any candidate. He is also the most requested Republican on Eventful.com, a site where users request candidates visit their city. Even more striking, Benton says since that May 3 debate, the number of donors to the campaign has increased fourfold.

"I wouldn't call it a grassroots effort, I'd call it a grassfire effort. It's growing by leaps and bounds," said Benton. "We couldn't even manage it if we tried."

Web sites popping up in support of Paul encourage users to network through sites like MySpace, to vote in online polls, to donate money and to join local Paul 2008 groups.

Daniel Walton of Virginia founded his own site, Americans for Ron Paul. He said he hasn't had any contact with the campaign, only with the grassroots Yahoo! group.

"Some of the people have a disillusionment to the traditional media because they don't think it's giving enough press to Ron Paul, which is one reason these blogs and groups have sprung out," Walton said.

The disillusionment of Paul supporters also extends to the Republican Party.

Paul, 71, ran for president once before. In 1988, he was the Libertarian Party's nominee for the White House. He is running as a Republican this time around, but not everyone in the party is welcoming him. The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party has pushed unsuccessfully to ban Paul from future GOP debates.

Paul is opposed to the war in Iraq and generally to U.S. intervention abroad, and he says he "never votes for legislation unless the proposed measure is expressly authorized by the Constitution."

Matt McMillan, president of the Internet strategy firm Buzzmaker, said the grassroots effort is gaining ground because of Paul's outsider status.

"I think one of the reasons may be because he is speaking to policy positions that very few other candidates are staking out -- his libertarian stance on social issues and his conservative stance on taxation," McMillan said. "He's attracting that libertarian base that felt alienated by the Republican candidates and President Bush over the last seven years."

The campaign also credits the online popularity to Paul's opposition to taxing and regulating the Internet.

"People who use the Internet are fans of Ron," Benton said.

Despite the growing fan base, Paul's candidacy is still a long shot. McMillan wondered what will happen to his fervent supporters if he is not the nominee.

"What is going to happen with these disgruntled groups?" he asked.

The answer will come early next year. In the mean time, the fans will be waiting on the Web.

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