The afternoon rolled in on Philadelphia's Independence Mall, Ron Paul supporters kept streaming onto the green, and a Temple University student named Matt Sullivan stalked the crowd handing out flyers. The headline: "Think you know what RON PAUL stands for?" The text: Four paragraphs from a 1992 edition of the Ron Paul Political Report, the issue with an essay about 95 percent of black males being criminals.
Why was a self-identified liberal, a student who's worked for Democratic campaigns, passing out Paul oppo? "I keep talking to liberals," Sullivan said, "who hear Paul in the debates and think he's anti-war. There's an effort to register Republican to vote for him, but he's got truly radical views that are being mainstreamed at events like this."
Here was the best example—better even than the churning, cheering rally of at least 4000 people—of how the Paul movement has grown. No one crashes Dennis Kucinich or Duncan Hunter events handing out "fact sheets." Our electoral Ashton Kutchers show up in dolphin suits at Mitt rallies; they amble into Rudy fundraisers with photos of mutilated fetuses who died for your sins. They only pay attention to the candidates they fear.
And I can understand why the Matt Sullivans of the world were worried on Saturday. At the Republican Straw Poll back in August, reporters and Republicans goggled at the size of the Paul crowds—about as thick as the ones for Mike Huckabee. But the impact faded once people talked to the Paul boosters and discovered that many were out of state and that many were naifs about political organizing.
Things change. Most of the people I talked to on Saturday were from Pennsylvania, many from the less renowned, more conservative corners of the commonwealth. More than a few were Constitution Party activists, and that's nothing to scoff at in this state where the Constitution Party can draw hundreds of thousands of votes when the Republicans nominate pro-choice candidates. Just as many were big "L" Libertarians, some of them activists with a few decades of election disappointments etched on their faces between their prescription specs and their trimmed beards. Members of Delaware County for Liberty, the Libertarian group in the (ever-less) conservative area south of Philly, handed out flyers for a post-rally fundraiser at a rollicking bar in Old City. The charge was $20 a head; nearly 200 Paul fans showed up.
The Paul campaign is pulling in every element of the outcast Right: Libertarians, Constitution Party members, Reform Party stalwarts, Buchananites, paleoconservatives, Birchers. That in itself isn't news, but the trend is accelerating and it's startling to see so many of these activists in one place. Shawntae Devlugt, a Trentonian who showed up to the rally in a Statue of Liberty costume, told me that she'd first put it on for a "Ron Pauloween" party where one guest won a copy of Aaron Russo's conspiracy-minded documentary From Freedom to Fascism. In her right hand she held a Styrofoam torch, and in her left hand she clutched a copy of The New American.
The not-fit-for-primetime contingent was small, dwarfed by thousands of ordinary conservatives, anti-war teenagers, and a small clutch of veterans (to whom most of the speeches before Paul were dedicated). The fabled 9/11 conspiracy theorists, those favorites of Fox News, were invisible, and a few massive orange-on-blue "TRUTH" signs had nothing to do with that movement. I missed them but Tennyson McCalla, an African-American Paul supporter from New York, saw some of the skinheads who are getting outsized media attention now that the candidate is gathering some steam. "They looked at me a little funny," McCalla shrugged, "but who cares about them?"
Fair enough. The fringier members of the crowd had been subsumed and overtaken by a surprising and surging little campaign. It would unfair to call Paul supporters members of a "personality cult," but you can't walk and talk with them and ignore their reverence for the man. New Jersey Assemblyman Mike Doherty, one of the very few legislators who's endorsed Paul, told the crowd that he'd converted his sons—veterans, like him—to the cause. John Holland, founder of the Rolling Thunder bikers-for-P.O.W.s campaign, credited Paul with single-handedly pushing a P.O.W. bill onto the House floor.
When Paul finally arrived on stage, he seemed energized and vindicated, even punchier than the man who's showed up at the GOP debates. "It has been said that there were two or three dozen spammers out there running the campaign," he said early on, "and it looks like there's a lot more!"
After the speech, as Paul headed around the stage, you could see the laissez-faire structure of the campaign and the devotion of his supporters working in harmony. The stage on the Mall had been cordoned off by a few moveable fences that didn't even go all the way around. Journalists and partisans alike had been making their way in and out during the whole affair. Once the crowd saw where Paul went, they surged behind the stage to meet a few overtaxed campaign staffers beseeching them to be quiet: The candidate was doing a live interview with CNN. Miraculously, they listened. Occasionally some supporter would catch sign of the congressman bobbing his head or adjusting his earpiece and shout "Ron Paul!" or "President Paul!" and a chorus would tell him to shush. For eight minutes, hundreds of people remained silent as their candidate basked in free media.
After that: Beatlemania. Paul only needed to walk about 10 yards to get from his set-up to his van, but a crush of supporters swarmed off, holding out replicas of the Constitution (available at a gift shop next door) for him to sign, asking him whatever quick questions they could muster ("Doctor Paul, what's your stance on, uh, intellectual property rights?") and begging his handlers for hugs. A redheaded undergrad gently asked park police to let her into Paul's circle: "I really just want to shake his hand, I've been waiting for so long to meet him!" When she got to the congressman she wailed, hugged, basked for a photo, hurtled away screaming "Thankyouthankyouthankyou!"
Word of the DelCo for Liberty meetup had traveled far by the time Paul's campaign staff made their escape. Some of the crowd scattered, some headed to their own bars, but the dozens of Paul supporters I followed decided, on the fly, to march around downtown Philadelphia. A Pennsylvanian businessman named Chris Deal raced to the sidewalks of Market Street to hand "slim jims"—flat campaign flyers the size of reporters' notebooks-to dumbfounded tourists, shop owners, anyone who he caught in the eye. He pried open the door of a Foot Locker and informed the manager that only Ron Paul would end the war in Iraq. He told a Puerto Rican woman outside of Philly Kids that Paul would end the drug war and ran back to the march, smiling, as she started chanting the candidate's name. Some of the people who the got flyers started laughing when the march rolled on, but it was a liberal crowd in a Democratic city. They didn't much mind the idea of an anti-war Republican.
"I think he's OK," said a tourist from Michigan who'd gawked as the Paul crowd marched past him. "He's the only one of those Republicans who has any goddamn sense."
The impromptu march hit a crescendo when it reached the Federal Reserve building on 10th Street and Chestnut Street and marchers ran across the road to holler and wave placards outside, chanting: "Abolish the Fed! Abolish the Fed!" It took a few minutes to spread word that there no longer was a Federal Reserve Bank in the building. From there it was more flyering on the street, some flyering cars in a Philly CarShare lot, a long and loud revel on the way to the marchers' next destinations. The people that wound up at the bar fundraiser had to pass a gauntlet of soused Penn State fans trying to debate them or out-yell them with cries of "Joe Pa for president!"
"You guys are brainwashed!" yelled a doughy, distracted football fan. "You got molested when you were kids!"
Ill-advisedly, some of the Paul people started yelling back. "Who do you support?"
"Who do I support?" the fan yelled. "Hill-a-ry! You guys can't even win. You can't get electoral votes. You don't even know about the electoral system."
I don't think my keyboard has the letters to display how she pronounced "electoral." Suffice to say that the Paul people laughed in her face and walked towards their bar. They've been debating online and getting slandered all year. Doing it in person, after they've just been on CNN, as they're about to meet new campaign staffers and strategize ways to win the primary: That's progress.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.