Dark Horse Paul Runs Well on the Web

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is seen as a major underdog in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He's at odds with most of his GOP rivals on Iraq. But he is winning plaudits from online polls.

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Presidential campaigns these days spend a lot on their Internet sites, but money alone won't make you an online sensation. The current buzz on the Web is centered on one candidate who barely registers in the polls.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: This week the Internet was all atwitter about Jerry Falwell and Paris Hilton, yet the number one item on the blog search site, Technorati, was the 71-year-old Republican congressman from Texas.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas; 2008 Presidential Candidate): Well, I think the party has lost its way.

SMITH: That's Congressman Ron Paul at the Republican presidential candidate debate in South Carolina where he didn't make too many friends. He was the only candidate there opposing the war in Iraq or suggesting that U.S. foreign policy led to 9/11.

Rep. PAUL: They attacked us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) to comment on that?

SMITH: Congressman Paul was about to be thrust into the headlines as he was taken on by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; 2008 Presidential Elections Republican Candidate): I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GIULIANI: And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that.

SMITH: Oh, but Paul didn't back down. And the rest of the Republican field looked ready to lynch the guy. After the debate, something strange happened when TV viewers voted on who won.

Mr. SEAN HANNITY (Talk Show Host, "Hannity and Colmes"): First place Ron Paul, surprisingly, 30 percent.

SMITH: Surprising maybe to Sean Hannity, but not anyone who's been on the Internet lately. Supporters of Ron Paul had been swapping every online poll for weeks, racking up his number of friends on MySpace, boosting the popularity of his Web site. Todd Zeigler, with the Web consulting firm the Bivings Group, says there may not be a lot of Ron Paul supporters, but they're making a hell of a lot of noise.

Mr. TODD ZEIGLER (Senior Vice President, Client Services, Bivings Group): We're talking about thousands of people that are very committed, that are willing to spend time everyday on this site, you know, promoting Paul.

SMITH: And while the name Ron Paul may not mean much to most voters, the man has long been a folk hero to libertarians who nominated him for president back in 1988. Micah Sifry is tracking the candidates on the Internet for the Web site TechPresident.com.

Mr. MICAH SIFRY (TechPresident.com): Libertarianism is disproportionately strong on the Internet among techies and others who, I think, just have a very strong leave-me-alone, you know, I'll-do-things-myself kind of attitude. And I think they're attracted to Ron Paul for genuine principled reasons.

SMITH: And just a quick surf to the Paul fan sites reveals a little bit about those principles. He's tapped into groups that want to abolish the IRS, people who want the U.S. out of the U.N. and back on the Gold Standard, activists who want marijuana legalized and those who write long essays about the trilateral commission.

Mr. AVERY NAP (Representative Ron Paul Supporter): You know, it's perhaps the last bastion of freedom in the world.

SMITH: I met Avery Nap(ph) first virtually on the Ron Paul page on MySpace, then in person at a pro-Paul demonstration in Manhattan, a dozen people showed up. But Nap(ph), a medical resident, says all the real action is online.

Mr. NAP: I predict him to be the Howard Dean of 2008.

SMITH: Well, as a Howard Dean learned a core passion people in the Internet, it does not win you election.

Mr. NAP: No, it doesn't. But once Dr. Paul's message gets across to, everyday mom and pops, those ideas will resonate with people.

SMITH: More likely, other political activists will copy the idea of having swarms of fans create this online burst of attention for their candidate. Micah Sifry calls it the Sanjaya effect after that less than talented contestant on "American Idol."

Mr. SIFRY: Anytime you create an interactive platform, people are going to try and play with it and do unintended things with it. That's what I mean with the Sanjaya effect. It - we're just entertaining ourselves. If we can make Ron Paul look more popular than he actually is, that kind of flummoxes the mainstream media, which is, you know, unsure of what to do with that information.

SMITH: But Ron Paul and his supporters may want to be where the other less of those Sanjaya. When the novelty wore off, you got voted off the program.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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