Ron Paul's Campus Army Putting Left-Field Presidential Candidate Front And Center

Anti-war, small-government Republican has Internet to thank for record-breaking campaign contributions.

While his fellow students are hooking up with whatever presidential campaign they think might pad their résumé or land them a cushy post-graduation job, University of Southern California senior Jeff Hubbard wants to do nothing less than change American history.

That's why this philosophy major and lifelong Republican said he's devoted up to 15 hours a week over the past few months to setting up events and rallies for U.S. Representative Ron Paul, the only anti-war, small-government Republican running for president. Paul is also intent on abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and returning to the gold standard, and blames American foreign policy for the 9/11 attacks.

"I had just finished taking a class called 'Terrorism and Genocide,' where we discussed the emergence of al Qaeda and Middle Eastern politics, and [soon after] I saw Dr. Paul during one of the Republican debates, citing some of the reasons we learned in the class on why America was attacked. And it was refreshing to hear this logic from someone running for president," explained Hubbard, 21. "I didn't know much about him until I saw the debate, and my ears perked up, and it got me thinking, 'This is interesting.' It got me searching his voting records and stances. The more I learned, the more excited I got, because of his principled record."

Also compelling Hubbard's interest in Paul was the fact that a friend of his had recently been medically discharged from the military after a stint in Iraq, and another friend had just been called up. "That anti-war, small-government message appealed to me," Hubbard said. "Also, like a lot of Republicans I know, I'm tired of the GOP administration ... for its mishandling of the economy and the war."

The 72-year-old retired physician and 10-term Texas congressman, whose campaign has been treated as a long shot at best, has quietly put together the kind of volunteer cyber army not seen since the failed 2004 campaign of Howard Dean. Only this time, Paul volunteers have harnessed the power of the Internet to organize rallies and Meetup groups not only on campus, but also in their larger communities. And on November 5, these "netrooters" set a single-day fund-raising record for this year's GOP candidates, bringing more than $4.2 million in for the campaign, a mother lode his campaign has referred to as the "money bomb."

Unlike the rest of the presidential candidates, who release their fund-raising figures quarterly, the Paul campaign makes a point of having a transparent donor roll. The constantly updated list is available on Paul's site. Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of techPresident.com — a blog that monitors how the candidates are using the Web — said that alone is empowering individuals to use donor data to encourage more people to participate.

"In Ron Paul's case, the money is a byproduct," he said. "But because the minute you give any money your name is available on the site, they know where money is coming from at every moment."

Though his political ideas are likely too far out there for most traditional Republicans, Rasiej said Paul is building leverage and he could very well have an influence on the outcomes of the upcoming primaries. "There's a tipping point happening," he said. "The traditional political establishment is dismissing Ron Paul [supporters] as a bunch of Internet geeks raising a bunch of money. What they don't understand is that Ron Paul is a bellwether for a sea change in the dynamics of how political campaigns will be fought in the future, where traditional, top-down consultants and parties no longer have absolute control."

As of Monday, Jeff Frazee, national youth coordinator for the campaign, said there are 348 Students for Ron Paul chapters across the U.S., a number he said is far and away more than all of the other GOP campaigns put together. It's all part of an unconventional strategy to decentralize the campaign, allowing student volunteers to take leadership roles and help run their own local organizations, with very little direction or demands from campaign headquarters.

"A lot of what he says resonates with students, like him talking about allowing them to opt out of Social Security," Frazee said. "How many of them look at their first paychecks and see the hundreds coming out of it each week for Social Security? The students also see the war spilling into Iran and the possibility of a draft."

This hands-off approach to harnessing intense people power on the Internet has quickly become the hallmark of the Paul campaign. A Technorati search brings up more than 1,000 Ron Paul blogs, and a Facebook page called Ronpaulforpresident2008 claims more than 42,000 members — and according to Frazee, it's growing at a clip of 1,000 new members a week. Learning the lessons of the Dean campaign, Frazee said efforts like the "money bomb," coordinated by a handful of volunteers through ThisNovember5th.com and RonPaulLibrary.org, help get the word out better than traditional TV ads. Best of all, they don't cost the lean, mean campaign a dime.

After studying abroad in London for four months, Hubbard said he got a bleak image of how "warmongering" America is viewed in Europe. That inspired him to join a Paul Meetup group on campus this year and to volunteer to be a student coordinator for Southern California. Working with three other volunteers, he attracted 1,000 people to a September 12 on-campus rally by posting fliers, hitting up local publications and reaching out to alumni and current students online and on campus. He also helped set up a post-rally $500-a-plate meet-and-greet and a follow-up forum for student supporters of any presidential candidate.

So far, the high point for Hubbard was getting the chance to share a quick, one-on-one breakfast with Paul while the congressman was in town for the rally. He said it confirmed his feelings about the dark horse contender, who Hubbard thinks definitely has a chance to win it all. "He's the nicest, most sensitive, caring guy I've ever met," Hubbard offered. "I couldn't see doing this for any other candidate."

For now, Hubbard has to deal with heated debates with his Mitt Romney-supporting roommate, who tries to convince him that Paul's polices are not feasible or practical. "He questions my involvement in the campaign," Hubbard said. "But I'm working on him."