Ron Paul, George and Ringo Presidential hopeful Rep. Ron Paul (TX) became an overnight sensation in the online chatter following his performance in the Republican debates. But will his support on the Internet translate into votes?
NPR logo Ron Paul, George and Ringo

Ron Paul, George and Ringo

It's been years since there was a rock star running for president named Paul. hide caption

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His political career started with an unsuccessful congressional race in 1974. hide caption

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Fifty-five years ago today, Texas Democrats nominate a successor to veteran Sen. Connally. hide caption

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As a member of the Mainstream Media in somewhat good standing, I will be the first to admit that I don't always understand or appreciate the intensity found in the political blogosphere. I sometimes can't decide if it's 50 million people expressing their views or if it's one person expressing them 50 million times. I don't question their passion; I honestly just don't know how big of an audience it is.

It's something I wrestled with in 2004, when Web sites were filled with gushing superlatives about Democrats Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. But once the primaries and caucuses were underway, that virtual passion did not translate into real votes; Dean could only win his home state of Vermont, and Kucinich was out of the running in every single contest.

Which brings me to Ron Paul. The 71-year-old Texas congressman became an overnight sensation in the online chatter following his performance in the Republican debates. Never an orthodox party member – he briefly left the GOP to run as the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 1988 – he has broken with President Bush on an assortment of issues, everything from the war in Iraq (Paul was one of six House Republicans to vote against it in 2002) to the USA Patriot Act (he says Bush has abused habeas corpus with regard to terrorism suspects at Guantanamo).

To be sure, Paul does follow the party line insofar as opposition to abortion and gun control, and support for tax cuts. But it's his stance on the war that has made him stand out in a field of relatively pro-war (or pro-Bush administration) Republican candidates. And it was his debate assertion on May 15 that U.S. policy in the Middle East helped bring about the attacks of Sept. 11 – a statement that brought a stern rebuke from another candidate, Rudy Giuliani – that probably helped his candidacy take off on the Internet as much as it has. It's hard to say for sure if his support is coming from anti-war Republicans or simply anti-war voters. It does seem to come from both the left and the right. Regardless, he does well in every online poll, he has more friends on MySpace than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and his YouTube channel has 10 times as many subscribers as Giuliani.

In the end, what does this all mean? I've said over and over again that I don't put much stock into presidential polls conducted months in advance of the caucuses and primaries. But let's be honest here. Paul has been polling nationally anywhere from 3 percent to zero percent. If the Paul candidacy were something to sit up and take notice of, why wouldn't that be reflected in the surveys?

Meanwhile, the battle for the nomination continues. There's a Republican debate coming up in Des Moines on Aug. 5 (broadcast by ABC); the Iowa GOP straw poll six days later; another debate, this one in New Hampshire, on Sept. 5 (broadcast by Fox); and then the YouTubers and CNN return to deal with the Republicans on Sept. 17. It will be interesting to see if the YouTube debate will serve as a break-out moment for the Paul campaign. Being a phenom on the Internet is nice, but unless it translates into real votes, in the end it will prove meaningless.

THE RON PAUL RECORD: Paul's initial foray into congressional politics was a disaster; he got creamed when he challenged an entrenched incumbent, Bob Casey (D-TX), in 1974. But when Casey resigned in early 1976 to become a Federal Maritime commissioner, Paul jumped into the special election in April and won. The guy he beat, Democrat Bob Gammage, came back to defeat Paul in November, but then Paul won the rubber match in '78. He gave up his seat in 1984 to run for the Senate seat being vacated by John Tower (R), but he lost in the Republican primary to Phil Gramm.

His 1988 presidential campaign as a Libertarian attracted 432,179 votes nationally – about a half-percent of the total vote. His showing failed to affect the outcome in any state.

Paul returned to the House in 1996, when he beat Rep. Greg Laughlin, a Democrat-turned-Republican, in the GOP primary runoff. Though Tom DeLay used his redistricting plan to weaken Paul's hold on the 14th District, Paul won re-election last year, with 78 percent of the vote.

Paul's unorthodoxy will be tested in next year's congressional primary. At least two Republicans are planning to challenge him.

JEKYL/HYDE: Some mixed messages about NPR's coverage of Paul. Michael Lounsbury of Kamiah, Idaho, wants to know why "NPR and most of the media are completely ignoring the campaign of Ron Paul, especially when he is the only one who has any chance of defeating the Democratic nominee, whoever that will be." A similar, more simple message comes from David Andrews of Newburyport, Mass.: "Why do you ignore Ron Paul?" And Charles Rishel also wishes NPR would cover the Paul campaign: "I think he sends out the right message, and many Americans might also agree, if he could get the word out."

At the same time, Gabriel Mueller of Tempe, Ariz., writes, "While I don't always agree with your analysis, I thank you for your recognition of Ron Paul in the Republican debates. As a libertarian/conservative (sometimes) Republican, I am completely excited that such a candidate like Ron Paul is getting the time and exposure from not only NPR but from the other media outlets." Marilyn Lynch of Springfield, Ill., writes to say she appreciates my "discussions on Talk of the Nation that recognize Ron Paul's contribution as the only real Republican running in 2008."

Update: Robert Siegel's interview with Paul aired on All Things Considered on July 25. You can hear it here.

This week's questions begin with one about the Paul and Kucinich candidacies:

Q: My question is about "lower tier" candidates. I realize it is way too early to crown a winner for either the Democrats or the Republicans, but what keeps a Dennis Kucinich or a Ron Paul in the race, when it is painfully obvious they don't have a chance? Is it sheer delusion, an attempt to make a point about a pet issue, or a thinly veiled attempt to garner their parties' VP nomination? – Joshua Kewish, Rancho Cordova, Calif.

A: Well, it's not about becoming vice president. Neither Paul nor Kucinich has a shot at making the ticket — though in fairness, neither one is angling for the VP slot or has expressed any interest in it. "Delusional" is not quite the right word, either, since Paul has acknowledged the odds of him winning the nomination are minuscule.

Kucinich, on the other hand, has laid out a scenario where he actually wins the nomination, but I think it's less about delusion and more an effort to rally the troops. Quite frankly, though, Kucinich seems to have far fewer troops than he did when he ran for president four years ago. Back then, he stood out as a fairly lonely voice against the war in Iraq. Now, the Democratic presidential field is filled with anti-war candidates, though admittedly of varying degrees.

But both Kucinich and Paul have a core philosophy they feel is being shunned by the other candidates, and that essentially is why they are running. For Kucinich, it's the war and universal health care. For Paul, it's big government, as well as the war. And so, whether or not they win any primaries or caucuses, they serve a purpose.

Q: I was just reading about how some of the Democrats who ran for Congress in 2004 and lost badly managed to win in the anti-Republican year of 2006. When's the last time you can recall this happening? – Jim Benton, Lansing, Mich.

A: A good comparison is the difference between the congressional elections of 1972 – President Nixon's landslide year – and 1974, when Watergate led to huge Democratic gains. Here are some examples of Democrats defeated for the House in 1972 and their wins in the rematches of two years later:

Floyd Fithian (D-IN)
1972: 45% in loss to Rep. Earl Landgrebe (R)
1974: 61% victory in rematch with Landrebe

David Evans (D-IN)
1972: 35% in loss to Rep. William Bray (R)
1974: 52% victory in rematch with Bray

Phil Sharp (D-IN)
1972: 43% in loss to Rep. David Dennis (R)
1974: 54% victory in rematch with Dennis

Tom Harkin (D-IA)
1972: 45% in loss to Rep. William Scherle (R)
1974: 51% victory in rematch with Scherle

Berkley Bedell (D-IA)
1972: 47% in loss to Rep. Wiley Mayne (R)
1974: 55% victory in rematch with Mayne

James Bilbray (D-NV)
1972: 48% in loss to David Towell (R)
1974: 56% victory in rematch with Towell

James Florio (D-NJ)
1972: 47% in loss to Rep. John Hunt (R)
1974: 57% victory in rematch with Hunt

Helen Meyner (D-NJ)
1972: 43% in loss to Joseph Maraziti (R)
1974: 57% victory in rematch with Maraziti

John Jenrette (D-SC)
1972: 46% in loss to Edward Young (R)
1974: 52% victory in rematch with Young

Robert Cornell (D-WI)
1972: 48% in loss to Rep. Harold Froehlich (R)
1974: 54% victory in rematch with Froehlich

OPENING THE FLOODGATES: Our political equivalent of a "perp walk" in the June 6 column, which included former Rep. Dan Flood (D-PA), reminded Fred Noye of Elliottsburg, Pa., of this story:

"It's January 1973, I had just been elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and a close friend invited me to President Nixon's inauguration. My friend had worked at the White House for Virginia Knauer, Nixon's director of consumer protection. She was hosting one of the post-parties prior to the inaugural, and I was invited. I was sitting there when the door burst open, and there was this very elegant man with a huge handlebar mustache, top silk hat, black silk cape with red lining, and a black cane with a white tip.

"My mouth must have hit the floor. My only thought was, 'Who the hell is that?' (Yes, Sniddly Whiplash came to mind!) It was Congressman Dan Flood. Needless to say, I never forgot who he was after that night. What an entrance and impression he made! When I learned later that he had been a Shakespearian actor in his early days, it all made perfect sense."


Georgia's 10th Congressional District: State Sen. Jim Whitehead (R), the undisputed frontrunner for the seat almost from the day incumbent Republican Charlie Norwood died in February, lost the July 17 GOP runoff in a stunning upset to physician Paul Broun. The margin was narrow – just 394 votes – but no one saw this coming, given Whitehead's overwhelming lead in money and establishment endorsements; Whitehead led Broun by 23 points in last month's initial primary. While Whitehead coasted during the runoff, Broun employed an impressive grassroots operation, focusing on Christian conservatives.

Contemptible: Now that the House Judiciary Committee has voted to cite White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Bush counselor Harriet Miers for contempt of Congress, it should be noted that the last time the full House voted on such a motion was on May 18, 1983. That's when the House, in a unanimous vote, cited former EPA official Rita Lavelle for contempt for ignoring a subpoena to testify about federal plans to clean up hazardous wastes.

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: Reading this column is bad enough; you can also hear a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, at 2:40 pm Eastern time. This week: the Democrats meet YouTube, Alberto Gonzales gets no respect, and Fred Thompson finds a Spencer for hire. If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself, and it goes up on the web site every Thursday.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Texas Democrats nominate anti-Truman candidates for both the Senate and governor. In the Senate primary to succeed retiring incumbent Tom Connally (D), Democrats choose state Attorney General Price Daniel. Democrats loyal to President Truman rally behind liberal Ralph Yarborough in the gubernatorial primary, but he is crushed by incumbent Gov. Allan Shivers (July 26, 1952).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: