Ron Paul can move fast when he wants to. On Friday, March 11, at 10 a.m., reporters are supposed to meet him at the admissions building of his alma mater, Gettysburg College, and accompany him on a campus tour. At 10:03 a.m. a few reporters who couldn't pinpoint the location finally straggle up to it. Too late. "You can catch him," a campus apparatchik suggests. "Big group of guys in suits—shouldn't be too hard to find."
Sure enough, Paul and a small phalanx of flacks and handlers are leading a small group of journalists through the campus. Handsome undergrads smirk and take cell phone pictures. One of them compels her boyfriend to stop their Jeep so she can sprint out and take a picture from the front. They're lucky they've got the Jeep. Paul, whose crooked walk and snug black sneakers made it into many a snarky profile, is speedwalking across the green. Three reporters racing right next to him, holding their recorders in his face, are so out of breath they can't blurt out questions. Todd Kniffen, a tour guide who's drawn an awfully long straw, is having a more or less uninterrupted conversation with Paul.
First stop is The Bullet Hole, the face-feeding joint where Paul earned a living as a manager back in 1956. It's now part of a new-ish brick-and-schlock student center. It's unrecognizable. A handler asks Paul to stand next to the new logo and menu for a photo, so he does. He greets four sweatsuit-clad female undergrads who've been laughing and cheering for him since he walked in.
"Hello-o-o!" Paul says. They giggle. "Are you getting some coffee?" They're getting orange juice. Where is he speaking today? "It's going to be at the movie theater… the Majestic. Do you watch a lot of movies?"
Paul and the girls chat pleasantly while the press corps respirates and fills up its film cans. When the candidate walks on to see the new swimming pool, a few hacks stick around to get the girls' reactions. "Are you supporting him?"
"No," one says, looking a little sorry about it. "There are a lot of supporters on campus, though. I'm, like, I just woke up!"
There has always been something off, something inexplicable about Paul's connection to young voters. He is asked about it constantly, and he usually reheats the same answer: The young people like the message. Many months ago, the numbers of young voters he could draw to a speech seemed to suggest something more, something bigger, a mass movement bigger than anything any other Republican could muster. Paul talks with glee about those other Republicans. "You heard all this fuss about Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani when they entered the race," Paul says. "Oh, they're frontrunners! They're in the top tier!" He grins so wide that he squints. "We got more votes than either of them!"
The Ron Paul campaign of April 2008 is taking place in a universe next door to ours, overlapping only occasionally with the McCain-Obama-Clinton race we read about every day. Paul is still mobbed on campuses. Lines form 30 to 45 minutes before he speaks. Drive up the loping highways of the state and you see hundreds of Paul signs (220 just on the road from Philadelphia to the capital in Harrisburg), precious few for the Democrats, and none for John McCain. But try and get people outside of the movement to pay attention.
Paul's Keystone State college tour makes two stops—in Gettysburg and in State College (home of Penn State)—and his wide-open press availabilities draw less than a dozen reporters.
Still, Paul does not make our job easy. At times, he argues that he is (still) running to scare the establishment. "At the moment we are campaigning to get the maximum number of votes and to see what happens," he says at his Gettysburg press conference. But when I ask if Paul will stay in the race to the convention and refuse to release his delegates to John McCain, Paul punts. "That infers that this is not a non-conventional activity. I'm not going to hold onto anything! The delegates have their own minds… I don't hold them, say 'do this, do that.'"
When he faces the crowd at the Majestic Theater (the place where those breakfast-eating girls don't watch movies), Paul pulls a Spiro Agnew and singles journalists out for belittling him, "The media ask me all the time, and of course, today they asked me two or three times: What are you doing this for?" he tells the crowd. Some of them boo. "They say, isn't everything locked up? Well…not quite." I look around at the rest of the press for some sign of umbrage, since he's clearly contradicting what he told us 20 minutes ago. No one looks too bothered. It doesn't show up in next day's stories.
In Pennsylvania there are four types of Paul supporters. There are the casuals, the kids who think it's cool that a presidential candidate is on campus, and who shout "I love you Ron Paul!" or dart out of their cars to snap iPhone photos of him and his entourage. There are the faithfuls, such as Harrison Brown of Lebanon County, who sits through Paul's Gettysburg speech with a sticker on his forehead. They've been waiting to vote for Paul for years. There are the converts who discovered Paul because they wanted a candidate who combined anti-war politics with a lack of slipperiness, and can't believe their luck in finding the Texas congressman.
Then there are the freaks. I don't use that word pejoratively. There is nothing too scary about "Lisa Marie" (no last name, thanks), who tells me that Paul is an "angel" who understands the threat posed by the Bilderbergs. Or Terry Cummings, a musician who tells me to go to BlackBoxVoting.org to see how these elections might be rigged. "There's supposed to a special tape on those voting machines," he says, "but anyone can rip the tape off and tamper with them. Watch the videos!" If they were the only people who showed up on Paul's Pennsylvania jaunt, it would be a problem. But they're only the leading edge of his fan base. They clarify why Paul is doing this and why he can still draw crowds. He is a counterculture figure now, and he doesn't know what to do about it. He knows only that he wants to speak on some campuses and bask in the applause.
At another short press conference in State College, after Paul's sampled butter pecan ice cream at the renowned Creamery, he acknowledges that there doesn't seem to be any ideological consistency to his flock. "The thing that brings them together," he offers, "whether they're from the left or the right, is that we really need to unify around the Constitution." He hasn't decided what to do yet with other candidates who are launching bids for office, agree part or all of his platform, and call themselves "Ron Paul Republicans."
"It's a difficult thing," Paul says, "because I know how politics works. If you have some name recognition and some money, you have to be careful. To say, 'I'm a Ron Paul Republican,' and to expect some money and an endorsement from me—I don't think that's a good idea." Of course, Paul, whose online fundraising in particular was nothing less than amazing, is sitting on a rumored $5 million of campaign cash. When his presidential bid officially ends, that dough, along with Paul's following, is going to go somewhere. When he sidesteps questions about his bankroll and his support, it makes you wonder if he'll actually make the decision on what to do with it, or if he'll let it be mismanaged.
That political question seems completely divorced from Paul's celebrity. At Penn State, organizers booked a hall for 700 people, then scrapped it because it was going to overflow. The new location is the basketball court of a daringly anonymous gym; when Paul's people start flooding in for the speech, the rest of the gym is still in use, and sweaty raquetball players wipe their brows and crane their necks at the crowd. Some of the people who saw Paul speak in Gettysburg have driven up here, a plodding two-and-a-half hour drive through progressively paler and emptier counties. The students who fill most of the room have mostly walked from their dorms. They expect a madcap encounter with a presidential candidate who's against the wars (on drugs and in Iraq) and for sticking it to both major parties.
The diehards get what they expected; the students, a little less so. Paul gives 80 or 90 percent of the speech he's given at every large venue, heavy on monetary policy ("and the dollar is falling, and this monetary system is broken, and if we don't do something it's going to collapse!") and Article I, Section 8. He's light on the drug war talk. As it goes on, a small portion of the crowd makes for the exit. The people who stay can be divided into those whose enthusiasm is starting to wane—the college kids—and those who are getting happier and happier the more Paul speaks. A bald Larry Kramer lookalike unfurls a red, white, and blue umbrella and starts twirling it as he dances in a little circle. Almost two dozen people are scribbling into notebooks. Some are taking notes on the speech. Some are actually doing homework.
Then it ends, and it looks like any presidential rally coming to an end. Paul's small entourage stands watch as more than 100 people line up to meet him. He signs pocket Constitutions, T-shirts, and placards, and he pauses for cell phone photos. Four shirtless undergrads who've stripped off their shirts and painted their chests with an R, O, N, and exclamation point wait patiently and groove along to the sound system, blasting "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister and "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. Not everyone was paying much attention to the speech. "I wish he was still in the race," says one student. When I tell him that Paul is still actually running, and that this is why he elliptically asked for votes, he challenges me. "I thought he was suspending his campaign. Why do you never hear about him?"
It's a fair question that no one will answer to the satisfaction of Paul's people. They've stumbled on a secret fellowship, and they've planted more yard signs and initiated more uncomfortable conversations about sound money and government lies than anyone will ever be able to count. On the way out of the Penn State speech I run into a thick-waisted man wearing a hat and a Bluetooth earpiece who I recognize from the Gettysburg rally. He tells me his name is Fritz Schram, and I ask why he decided to drive to both rallies.
"Why am I here?" He looks at me as if I'm asking why he'd dyed his skin plaid. "I'm here because I support Ron Paul."
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.