PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — When about 500 voters packed into a New Hampshire town hall last week to hear Ron Paul speak, they saved their biggest applause for something no other Republican presidential candidate is talking about.
“I would like to restore your right to drink raw milk anytime you like!” Paul said to loud and sustained cheers in the historic Peterborough Town House.
It was an emblematic moment for Paul’s campaign, which is powered by his call for slashing federal government and expanding personal liberties, including the freedom to drink unpasteurized milk that the federal government brands unsafe.
“We’re fanatics,” said 24-year-old Tristan Contas of Durham, N.H., a recent college graduate who is planning to spend the week before the state’s primary volunteering for Paul in a youth-driven push the campaign is organizing. “Young people don’t like people telling them what to do — it’s a certain rebellion against the authority that is our government — and Dr. Paul really speaks to that.”
Paul, 76, has attained cultlike status in his third run for the presidency. He is gaining in Republican primary polls in large part because of his penchant for saying things no one else in his party dares to, and not just about dairy products. He advocates auditing and then scrapping the Federal Reserve, withdrawing all U.S. troops from overseas war zones, and cutting $1 trillion in government spending in one year, including closing five federal agencies.
“I would be a different kind of president. I wouldn’t be looking for more power. Everybody wants to be a powerful executive and run things. I, as a president, wouldn’t want to run the world,” Paul said in a Fox News debate on Dec. 15.
An unorthodox message isn’t the only way Paul’s campaign is a world apart from that of his rivals. The eldest candidate in the race, his support includes legions of students and young professionals who provide a hipster vibe — from the raw milk sometimes found in the refrigerator at the New Hampshire campaign headquarters in Concord to Paul’s appearances and frequent mentions on Jon Stew art’s “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
His political ads have received top reviews, in part because they are different from the predictable schoolroom or flag-filled settings. One commercial in Iowa is set to hard-rock music reminiscent of a monster truck rally and portrays Paul as a “big dog” with bite to match his bark, while the other candidates are “whimpering like little Shih Tzus.”
“He’s been on message for what, now, about 30 years?” said Brian Vaillancourt, 48, an undecided independent voter who attended the Peterborough town hall. “His position is fortuitous because of the economic situation. We’re in this mess now, and he’s the only one who’s been warning about it and focusing on it for all this time. The brutal history and simplicity of his plan is appealing.”
Polls indicate it’s a message that is resonating with more Republican voters and giving Paul a chance to score an upset win in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses that begin the nominating process. And, even with the unusual outward trappings, Paul has built a strong foundation around his campaign with money, advisers and a voter-turnout organizing effort that will be implemented by his devoted fol lowers.
His views are also a reason some voters write Paul off as unelectable. Everywhere Paul goes, they question him on his military stance, worrying aloud that it could weaken the nation. Vaillancourt asked Paul whether he believed his agenda was “actionable” given partisan divisions in Congress.
“People are listening right now more than they ever have before,” Paul responded. “I’ve been talking about this for a long time, and it’s just in the last couple years that all of a sudden something is happening in this country.”
Republican strategists can see Paul doing well in Iowa and remaining in the race for months. Ultimately, they conclude he is incapable of winning the party’s nomination.
“It’s a bridge too far for a libertarian who’s so far out of synch with the foreign policy of the traditional Republican Party,” said Richard Viguerie, who worked on Paul’s earliest congressional campaign and is uncommitted in the presidential contest. “I don’t think, frankly, the party is ready for that yet.”
Paul dismissed such talk last week as “propaganda.” “They don’t want me to win, is why they say, ‘He can’t win,’ because they’re fearful that I would take on all the special interests,” Paul told reporters after a campaign stop at the Homestead Grocery & Deli in Amherst.
For now, he’s making the naysayers a selling point for his bid. In a fundraising appeal to supporters Friday — the latest of his so-called “money bombs” that raise large amounts of campaign cash in one concentrated time period — he urged his backers to “shock the world” and help him achieve results in Iowa and New Hampshire that “will bring the political establishment to its knees.”
They responded: Paul was closing in on his goal of $4 million. His campaign reported having raised $12.8 million and having $3.7 million in cash as of Sept. 30, the date of his last Federal Election Commission filing. That made him the third best fundraiser in the primary, ranking behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. About 40 percent of that tot al came from money bombs, a technique he pioneered during his 2008 run.
As of Dec. 16, Paul’s campaign had spent about $1.1 million on television advertising so far this year, second only to Perry, who had invested about $1.6 million in ads, according to data compiled by CMAG/Kantar Media, a New York-based company that tracks the spending. Paul’s total was more than twice what Romney had spent and more than 10 times the amount another competitor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had devoted to TV ads.
Another Paul campaign advantage: a base of supporters that’s unlikely to desert him for one of his rivals.
“When we get people, we tend to keep them, because once you get to know him and know his background and record, it’s very different from anyone else out there,” said New Hampshire State Sen. Jim Forsythe, who is co-chairing Paul’s campaign in the state. “We’re steadily gaining ground.”
Greg Giroux in Washington contributed to this report.