On the afternoon of July 6, 2007, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas emerged from his taxi to what was becoming a shockingly familiar sight: Dozens of fans waving handmade or Internet-bought “Ron Paul” signs.
They had been waiting outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for up to 45 minutes, ready to greet the long-shot Republican presidential candidate as he arrived for an interview with George Stephanopoulos, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News. The famous interviewer had walked into the hotel minutes earlier, smiling at the crowd, but was barely noticed. The obscure congressman was greeted with shouts, cheers, and a bunch of hand-held cameras.
I asked Paul about reports that his rival Sen. John McCain—then cratering in the polls—might take public financing. “He needs it,” Paul said, chuckling. “We don’t need it!”
Inside the hotel the politician known as “Dr. No” told Stephanopoulos his campaign had raised $2.4 million in the second quarter, quadrupling his numbers from the quarter before. “We’re on the upslope,” said Paul. “We feel good about what’s happening.”
Stephanopoulos asked just one tough question: “What’s success for you in this campaign?”
“What’s success?” Paul pondered this. “Well, to win, is one, is the goal—”
“That’s not going to happen.”
Paul was taken aback. “Do you know for—absolute? Are you willing to bet your—every cent in your pocket for that?”
“You are. OK. I thought so when I ran for Congress.” The congressman laughed and moved on.
Paul’s life was changing dramatically. Within six months he would raise another $25 million for his campaign, giving him a larger war chest than McCain at the time. Within ayear he would draw thousands of supporters to a “Revolution March” in Washington, leading up to a massive “Rally for the Republic” just minutes from the site of the Republican National Convention. By the end of 2008, Ron Paul would be a bona fide national political figure: author of a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, subject of two quickie biographies, a frequent guest on cable news shows.
But 2008 would end with Stephanopoulos’ question hanging. What was success? Having failed to win the Republican nomination, did Paul’s candidacy affect the big-government direction of the GOP? Did it improve the fortunes of a more ideologically compatible political grouping, the Libertarian Party, which nominated Paul for president in 1988 and still counts him as a lifetime member?
Optimism for the Paul campaign peaked in December 2007 and faded by February 2008. Optimism for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr’s effort to pick up the Paul banner peaked in May and was in tatters by September. By November, mutual recriminations from both camps put libertarians in a familiar political position: bitterly blaming one another for their ongoing marginalization. “Paul set the liberty movement back a decade by encouraging people to stay in the GOP,” Barr Communications Director Shane Cory told me just days before the election. Paul Communications Director Jesse Benton described Barr’s campaign as “disappointing” after the election. “They got more and more desperate.”
Paul launched his presidential bid on January 11, 2007. In the first three months of the year, he raised only $640,000 and hired a skeletal staff. The momentum shift came on May 15, 2007, when Paul butted heads with Rudy Giuliani in the second GOP presidential debate. Pressed on whether he thought the United States could still follow a “humble foreign policy” after 9/11, Paul tried to explain the theory of blowback. “Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?” he asked. “They attack us because we’ve been over there.” A sputtering Giuliani demanded that Paul “withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.” The South Carolina crowd roared. Paul refused to back down, and was heavily booed.
“A lot of people thought that would be our death knell,” Benton recalls. Back in D.C., a Giuliani-supporting peer (Paul won’t say who) thanked the Texas congressman for “helping my guy out.” But Paul benefited more than Giuliani, receiving a surge of donations and media profiles. “It really rocketed our campaign forward,” says Benton. Of the $2.4 million three-month fund raising haul that Paul told Stephanopoulos about, nearly all of it came in the weeks after the debate.