From posting video on YouTube to enlisting friends through Facebook, all of the presidential candidates are looking for ways to harness the Internet. In the case of Ron Paul, the Internet has harnessed him.
Mr. Paul, a 10-term Texas congressman who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, came into the campaign with a conservative platform: a return to the gold standard, abolition of the I.R.S., a literal view of the Constitution. His campaign was bare bones. Then he started appearing in debates. His emphatic presence and fierce opposition to the war in Iraq set him apart from his fellow Republicans. Setting him even farther apart were ideas like blaming American foreign policy for the attacks of 9/11 and abolishing the Federal Reserve.
If his campaign had taken place in the pre-Internet era, it might have gone the way of his 1988 Libertarian campaign for president, as a footnote to history. But because of the Internet’s low-cost ability to connect grass-roots supporters with one another — in this case, largely iconoclastic white men — Mr. Paul’s once-solo quest has taken on a life of its own. It is evolving from a figment of cyberspace into a traditional campaign, with yard signs, direct mail and old-fashioned rallies, like one here on Saturday attended by a few thousand people under cold, gray skies. Mr. Paul said it was his biggest rally so far. He said it proved his campaign was more than “a few spammers” and called it a “gigantic opportunity” to establish credibility.
How much the Paul campaign had snowballed on the Internet became evident last week when supporters independent of the campaign raised $4 million online and an additional $200,000 over the phone in a single day, a record among this year’s Republican candidates. There is even talk that Mr. Paul could influence the primary in New Hampshire, where he could draw votes from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is trying to revive the independent persona that helped him win the state’s primary in 2000.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Paul, 72, a retired physician and a grandfather, acknowledged that the influence of the Internet had surprised even him.
“We always knew it was supposed to be important,” he said of the Internet. “My idea was you had to have someone who was a super expert, who knew how to find people. But they found us.”
As for the record one-day fund-raising, he said, “I had nothing to do with it,” adding that he had so far neglected to thank the people responsible. (James Sugra, 28, of Huntington Beach, Calif., acting on his own, posted an online video proposing one big day of fund-raising; Trevor Lyman, 37, of Miami Beach, then independently created a site, www.thisnovember5th.com, that featured the video.)
Mr. Paul estimated that the one-day haul had brought “$10 million worth of free publicity.”
He added, “It’s kind of sad, but the money is what has given us credibility, not the authenticity of the ideas.”
Those ideas were on display Saturday as Mr. Paul said young people should be able to opt out of Social Security, called for an audit into how much gold really is in Fort Knox, and, in urging an end to the war, declared, “The Versailles Treaty is one of our biggest problems we’re dealing with today, because it was under the Versailles Treaty that we created — the West created — this artificial country called Iraq.”
He also called the Internet “a strong political equalizer,” adding that the attention after the one-day fund-raiser had been “a very, very valuable lesson for us.”
Stirring the interest in contributions to the Paul campaign is an innovation on his Web site, www.ronpaul2008.com, a real-time display of the dollars and the names of donors as they roll in. By contrast, most campaigns conceal their fund-raising and time the release of financial information for political effect.
“What is new is how Paul’s openness about his daily fund-raising data helped foster this surge,” said Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of techPresident.com, a nonpartisan Web site that tracks the candidates’ use of technology. “It fed a powerful user-driven feedback loop.”
That success is propelling Mr. Paul increasingly toward the nuts and bolts of concrete campaigning. His staff members — in headquarters above a dry-cleaning shop in Arlington, Va., where some have built bunk beds in their cubicles — began a $1.1 million television campaign in New Hampshire this week. He even held an old-school fund-raiser here on Saturday, behind closed doors.
The Paul campaign says it expects to expand its staff of 70 paid workers and 8 unpaid state coordinators. (By contrast, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who is also seeking the Republican nomination, has 244 paid staff members.)
“To have any chance of success, you have to blend the old with the new,” said Lew Moore, Mr. Paul’s campaign manager. “If you just have a cyber-campaign and that does not translate into votes or money, it would be a fantasy and we would just be a video game.”
The new success means new challenges: Can Mr. Paul translate the passion that has been bubbling up on the Internet into votes? Can he hold together his disparate collection of supporters who have united online? And as the campaign moves forward, who will chart its course?
To his online supporters, the responsibility lies with them.
“I feel like I am the campaign,” said Chester Gould, 26, who owns a technology company and was among 28 supporters last week at an Albany “meetup,” an online term for like-minded people who share an interest, whether it be needlepoint or politics, and then agree to meet in person.
Howard Dean, who pioneered the use of the Internet in presidential politics in 2004, also used meetups, which are now commonplace in campaigns. But Paul supporters have demonstrated how a handful of people can build them into a movement. There are now more than 1,140 Paul meetup groups in 900 cities with more than 67,000 members.
The meetups have operated largely independently from the campaign, but like the campaign are moving their efforts from the Internet to the ground.
“The crux of the problem we have is that most of the public has not heard of Ron Paul yet,” said Jeff Gaul, 50, an Albany insurance broker and public adjustor, who bought a batch of Paul yard signs at his own expense and urged others at the Albany meetup to do so.
At the meetup — in an unadorned, dimly lighted coffeehouse — supporters spent two hours discussing ways to establish a greater physical presence, including creating and paying for their own radio advertisements for Mr. Paul and gathering signatures for a petition drive to get him on the New York State ballot.
Their self-directed activity reflects just how much the Internet has changed politics since Mr. Dean’s campaign.
“The Dean campaign was decentralized, but I think Paul’s movement is actually run by nonstaffers,” said Zephyr Teachout, a visiting assistant law professor at Duke University who was Mr. Dean’s director of online organizing. “The buggy is pulling the horse.”
Ms. Teachout said that most campaigns this year knew that they needed “to build really amazing tools and spend a lot of time on the Web site” to create voter loyalty. But that led many to micromanage their Web sites. By contrast, she said, “the Paul campaign took the opposite lesson — that it was about openness and power — and focused far less on the tools and far more on decentralization as a driving force.”
Without centralization, the meetups can seem like sessions devoted to reinventing the wheel. But many at the Albany meeting said their freedom was empowering and only fed their enthusiasm, though they were drawn to Mr. Paul for different reasons.
Andrew Fox, 28, who described his day job as “sitting on a bench with a soldering iron” repairing cable TV boxes, agreed the other night to become the treasurer for the Albany group. “We have effectively lost our form of representative government,” Mr. Fox said. “The war is the worst thing, but we also have a police state at home.”
David Weck, 54, a chiropractor from Schenectady, said that he was a Democrat but that Mr. Paul was the only candidate who seemed committed to smaller government.
“Never in a million years did I think I would be interested in a Republican candidate,” Mr. Weck said, “especially after this administration.”
Mr. Gould said he was alarmed about the nation’s currency, a favorite Paul topic. Federal Reserve notes, Mr. Gould said, are “like a loan off of a loan that’s physically impossible to ever repay,” meaning the country “will continuously be in massive debt.”
Mr. Paul’s supporters seem prepared to push at least as far as he will, but how far he will go is not yet clear; he has waved off suggestions of a third-party candidacy.
“As long as there’s momentum, and if they’re starting another fund-raiser for me, how can I walk away?” Mr. Paul said in the interview. But if the votes don’t materialize, he added, “after every primary, you’d have to have a bit of a reassessment.”