I stepped inside the two-day Americans for Prosperity "Defending the American Dream" summit in Washington, D.C. and ran into a guy who'd just hugged Ron Paul.
"It was… pretty awkward!" said Logan Dobson, an 18-year old Republican from the George Washington University. "I got next to him, I gave him a hug, and I said 'You're my hero!'"
Dobson joined a fairly large contingent of young Paul supporters who had hooted and cheered during his short speech to the Summit. Not too large: Most of the Paulites knew each other from other events and from the web. But there were far more lapel buttons for Paul than for Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney, or any other candidate who was speaking. They had signs, too, which cheesed off Americans for Prosperity volunteers who wanted to keep this an ostensibly non-partisan affair.
"He got a pretty good reception during the speech," said Aaron Biterman, a 24-year old American University grad who does some Paul organizing in D.C. "A third of the audience was cheering: I was cheering and jumping up the whole time. A third was pretty neutral, a third didn't really like him."
"I was sitting near one of those people," said Tyler Whitney, an 18-year old from Michigan State. "He just said 'Ron Paul? He supports the terrorists!' and then… didn't pay attention."
I didn't meet that guy but I met Lt. Col Stuart Jolly (Ret.), an AFP organizer from Oklahoma who grimaced when I asked about Paul.
"I can't take him really seriously," Jolly said. "I don't think you can come out of the Army and take him seriously on this war." The war was a deal-breaker for him, but he wasn't buying John McCain's new campaign focus as the candidate who'll "never surrender" in Iraq. "I like Rudy. You listen to him and you know he will never stop until he's gotten the job done."
No one I talked to was crazy about McCain and almost everyone I talk to think Fred Thompson gave an awful, confidence-killing rambler of a speech. (Jim Geraghty has a different take.)
"He looked like he was worried about the Big Bad Wolf catching him on the way to Grandma's house," said Lucie Weaver, a Texas Republican activist.
By far the most opinionated activist I spoke to was Jerry Sawyer, a 67-year old academic from Fort Myer's Beach, Florida and the author of a self-published epistle called Liberalism and the Age of the Woman. Ron Paul was unacceptable because "Libertarianism is an incoherent philosophy. How can you say you'll govern Judeo-Christian principles if you're not willing to enforce them?" George W. Bush is a good president "but I want to choke him for his immigration stance."
Sawyer was also the only activist I talked to who said he might vote for a third party if Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination. "That'd be a tough choice," he said. "In that case I'd almost have Hillary get elected and shock some sense into this country."
They were a minority, but the only truly optimistic people I found were Paul people.
"I think if Ayn Rand was watching Ron Paul right now," said Anthony Baumann, 18, "she'd give him a thumb's up."