Ron Paul didn't exactly fall off his chair laughing. That's not the 10-term Texas congressman's style.
But the day after supporters went online and plowed what could be a single-day record $4.2 million into his underdog Republican presidential campaign, the no-nonsense Paul allowed himself a modest chuckle when asked how he concocted such a potent Web strategy.
"Strategy? There hasn't been any," Paul, 72, says during an interview last week. "There's no strategy other than trying to get the information out. The Internet does the work." The funny thing is, he's not making it up. Paul's avid fans—an intriguing mélange of opponents of war, taxes, abortion, government, and gun control—managed the big payday on their own.
Trevor Lyman, 37, a Miami music promoter, set up a Ron Paul fundraising site after a supporter from California posted a video on YouTube claiming that the campaign had more than 100,000 followers online at MySpace and YouTube and in Meetup groups. The site brought in 36,672 donors who gave an average of $103. "We're kind of blown away," says Lyman, who named the site "November 5th" in reference to the life of Briton Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. Lyman wasn't honoring Fawkes, he says, but the "this is our government, we're the deciders" sentiment of his actions.
The online haul stunned old GOP hands like consultant Ed Rollins. "Quite a day," Rollins says. "In this campaign, I get up every day and get astonished." Though polls show that Paul is far from running with the big dogs—his GOP support nationally is at 3.3 percent—Rollins predicted that the Texan is on his way to becoming "more than a back-of-the-pack candidate."
Contrarian. How has this retired doctor and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate attracted grass-roots support and stockpiled more campaign cash than onetime GOP front-runner John McCain? After all, Paul gets booed by Republican audiences for his pledge to immediately end a war he says is illegal. He wants to abolish the IRS and the CIA. And he had the temerity to take on front-runner Rudy Giuliani over whether the nation's long-standing presence in the Middle East contributed to 9/11.
"People are tired of what they're getting from their government," says Paul. "They're angry. They believe they're being lied to when it comes to the economy. They believe they've been lied to going into war."
Josh Lowry Manuel, 23, of Houston, says he discovered Paul while watching YouTube videos of the candidate's debate performances. "He cured my apathy," says Manuel, a Republican. "He talked about not abusing habeas corpus, about a small federal government. He's the only one against the war and the only one talking about monetary policy." With $80 worth of software, Manuel created RonPaulForums.com, now campaign central for supporters. "The forums are really the gold mine of this thing," says Jack Wagner, 58, a writer for a sofware company who lives in Houston.
Though conservative experts like Robert Bluey at the Heritage Foundation are convinced something significant is happening in the Republican Party, Paul's popularity is ancillary to that phenomenon. "These are people who are not going to pull the lever for a Republican—they're inspired by one person," Bluey says. Would Paul consider a third-party run? "It doesn't interest me at all," he says. "I've refiled for my congressional seat. That's Plan B." His supporters' plan? Lyman has another online fundraising spectacular planned for auspicious dates: December 15, "Bill of Rights Day," and December 16, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.