Ron Paul leads Republicans online

The 2008 presidential campaign with the biggest on-line presence is led by 72-year-old congressman in a crumpled suit who confesses he has no internet strategy but just stumbled on “a wonderful secret weapon”.

Ron Paul, a libertarian opposed to the Iraq war and government intrusion, is now drawing some of the largest crowds of any Republican candidate in Iowa and has raised more money on a single day than any of his rivals.

A campaign sign at his events boasts about the secret of his success: “Out next President is Ron Paul. Go ahead, Google him.” Doing so harvests 1.49 million items – more than Hillary Clinton (835,000) and Barack Obama (637,000) combined.

On the campus of Dordt College, a private Christian university in the remote north-western corner of snow-blanketed Iowa, Dr Paul, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, was hailed by a gathering of more than 300 as a cult hero.

After a speech in which he confessed he had first entered politics in 1971 as a “bit of a lark” and then railed against the “invidious erosion of respect for the constitution” and the “monstrosity” of the Patriot Act, the first questioner suggested a vote of thanks to “the people’s champion”.

National polls show Mr Paul in sixth place in the Republican field but he is in a stronger position in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where success could transform subsequent contests.

If his on-line support and the enthusiasm of his followers can be translated even partially into feet on the ground on January 3, when the Iowa caucuses are held, then he could score a major upset by leaping ahead of one or more of the major contenders.

Dr Paul draws backing from disaffected Republicans, some Democrats and a large number of independents. But his biggest pool of potential voters includes internet-savvy youngsters and others who have never been involved in politics.

Samuel Zylstra, 21, a psychology student, said he first became aware of Dr Paul when he saw him on the television chat show hosted by the controversial political satirist Bill Maher.

“Then I looked him up on the internet. There’s so much stuff about him there. That’s how his campaign works.”

Except that Dr Paul had nothing to do with it.

“I wish I could say, ‘Boy, I really organised the grass roots, I really know how the internet works and we hired a few computer experts’,” he said in Sioux City.

Instead, the voters found Dr Paul and his campaign, like that of Howard Dean, the early Democratic front runner in 2004, has been taken in a direction the candidate himself had never anticipated.

Matt Bai, author of a book that examines the effect of the internet on American politics, described the process in the New York Times as akin to a rock guitarist falling “backward off the stage into the hands of an adoring crowd”.

Dr Paul’s contention that the “nanny state” has taken over invariably receives hearty applause.

“We have lost our way as a nation, we have lost our understanding of the constitution, we have lost our confidence in freedom,” he said in Sioux Center.

But it is his anti-war message that brings crowds to their feet. Declaring that he would bring US troops home from the Middle East, Japan, South Korea and Europe, Dr Paul said that Islamist terrorism was motivated by America’s desire to extend “our foreign empire” and occupy other countries.

He compared the Iraq invasion to a Chinese invasion of the US.

“What if they said, ‘Well, we want to promote our system of government on you through force’? What if they build military bases on our land to protect their oil in the Gulf of Mexico and they had different religious values?

“What would we do? It would unite every single American and we’d pick up our guns and do some fighting.”

The movement that Dr Paul has tapped into will continue to be a force in American politics long after his campaign has ended.

“The momentum’s building regardless of the outcome of the election,” he told the Sioux Center crowd.

“There’s something stirring in this country and I don’t think you can silence those people who have been interested in this campaign.