Suddenly, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has become a money-making machine. As of 11:44 Wednesday morning, the libertarian-leaning, "get out of Iraq now" congressman from Texas had pulled in $7,556,621.90 in the quarter beginning Oct. 1. His website, RonPaul2008.com, posts minute-to-minute updates in big, hard-to-miss numbers.
Mr. Paul's goal is to raise $12 million this quarter. But his supporters have already made their point: They fervently believe in the man, and have figured out a way to get the mainstream media to pay attention to him. On Monday, an independent effort by Paul backers raised a stunning $4.2 million for his campaign, nearly all of it online. At the rate Paul is going, he will have a fourth-quarter funding total that rivals or even surpasses the top-tier GOP candidates.
The third quarter provided a hint of things to come: He raised $5.3 million.
And all of this is for a man who is polling in low-to-mid single digits in national polls of Republican primary voters. In New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, a state with its own libertarian streak, he is averaging only 3 percent in polls.
The Paul surge reflects, in part, the success of the Internet in providing a "place" for like-minded people to find each other and interact.
In particular, "there's a heavy libertarian strain within the high-tech community who are overrepresented online," says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the Internet.
Paul's message of limited government, low taxes, and noninterventionism in foreign policy appeals to a certain swath of the Republican electorate that is unhappy with President Bush, the war in Iraq, and the growth of government and spending during Mr. Bush's tenure.
Some Paul supporters object to the label "libertarian," arguing that his opposition to abortion rights does not fit some libertarians' view on the issue. But Paul himself does not reject the label; in 1988, he ran for president as the Libertarian Party's candidate (while remaining a Republican), placing a distant third.
The Paul boom also reflects the continuing dissatisfaction, particularly on the Republican side, with the top presidential candidates. So in part, analysts say, he represents a protest vote – even if some of his positions, such as elimination of the Federal Reserve, probably would not poll well even among some of his supporters.
The candidates "all have visible flaws, from the perspective of the Republican base, and Ron Paul is at least forceful," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "He has an ideology that is consistent and that he is personally committed to."
Paul also appeals to people who are fed up with the partisanship and tear-down-the-front-runners mentality in American politics. "A lot of people will look at Paul and say, that guy is talking to me, not to the people at the other podiums next to him," says Mr. Jillson.
Going forward, one question is whether the Paul surge will affect the other Republican candidates' positions. Will he, for example, make it safer for the others to distance themselves from Bush on Iraq? It would be unlikely for Sen. John McCain to go there, but former Gov. Mitt Romney had already been taking steps in that direction, pushing hard on the "change" message.
Another question is whether Paul can turn his cash bonanza into higher poll numbers. If he wants to make a move in New Hampshire, he has to spend more time there, says Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "You've got to come here," says Mr. Smith. "You can't have a virtual candidate who campaigns over the Internet to win an election."
Already, Paul has boosted his radio and television advertising.
The final question is whether Paul launches a third-party campaign, if he fails to win the GOP nomination. That is a prospect the Republican Party can ill afford.
Footnote: Paul backers tied their Nov. 5 fundraising effort to Guy Fawkes Day – which commemorates the day in 1605 when the British mercenary tried to blow up Parliament and kill the king. Fawkes also provided inspiration for the 1982 graphic novel "V for Vendetta," later a movie. The Paul-Fawkes connection led the Paul campaign to assert that the congressman does not support violence against the government.