Of all the interesting little fish swimming beneath the currents of the major candidates in this presidential campaign season, none are making waves as surprising as those kicked up by Rep. Ron Paul.
The Texas Republican, who embraces a Libertarian point of view, has been riding an unimpressive 2 percent in the polls, but if there were an election for the president of cyberspace, he'd probably win hands down.
Paul's supporters are an enthusiastic bunch. They flood online polls such as the unscientific survey to which ABC News invited viewers after the Republican debate they broadcast last Sunday. Yet, you could barely find the Texas doctor in the network's after-debate coverage, despite the vigorous applause he ignited with his call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Paul's people smell a rat. In endless e-mailings and phone calls to talk shows, they blame an insidious conspiracy to muzzle the "truth."
Indeed, you might think the mainstream media would pay more respect to a guy who ended up the recent fund-raising quarter with more cash on hand than Sen. John McCain, the leading maverick of the 2000 race. At the end of June, Paul reported raising almost $2.4 million and virtually zero debt in his frugal campaign, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission. McCain's faltering campaign was left with about $1.4 million after his reported $1.8 million in debt for the quarter.
In fact, according to news reports, Paul showed more cash on hand than five other second-tier Republican candidates and one Democrat, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
So why, I am often asked, doesn't Paul get more coverage? The short answer is the Catch-22 trap of win-ability. As news media allocate precious time and space, our attention gravitates toward those who have a prayer of winning. And, of course, without coverage, one's chances of winning are even worse.
Yet, like other mavericks as varied as John Anderson, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, Paul appears to be turning on a segment of the electorate that usually seems to lie dormant. In his case, a lot of them live online.
Judging by my contacts with Paul promoters in person and in my e-mail box, they seem to be largely young, male, independent-minded, Leave-Us-Alone libertarians who like Paul's tiny-government agenda.
Which leads to another reason why I think Paul faces trouble in moving his campaign to the next level of public attention: Organization. You can't win political campaigns without it, but organizing libertarians, by their very nature, is about as easy as herding cats. Angry cats.
When I asked Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, who specializes in monitoring polls, he told me his data indicates I wasn't far off, although Paul's portion of respondents makes up a small sample of Republicans. "The numbers are so small," he said, "that the only thing you can say with certainty is that he gets more positive response with independents who say they lean Republican than he does with those who declare themselves to be Republicans."
The latest Pew poll at the end of July showed Paul rising to 2 percent among Republicans from zero percent in April, Kohut said, but among Republican-leaning independents, he surged to 9 percent "as their first or second choice."
Still, Paul's biggest challenge as an independent-minded libertarian is win-ability in a party heavily dominated by loyal partisans, social conservatives and supporters of President Bush's Iraq policy. The first rule of politics is to unify your base. The Republican base may be dissatisfied with the way the war is going, but they do not favor an immediate pullout until, as President Bush likes to say, "we get the job done."
Nevertheless, Kohut sees an opening on the issue, although probably not for Paul. "There's a defensiveness about Iraq among Republicans," he said. "Many of them say they want a different approach. I think that under the surface there is a market for someone who will say something different from what Bush is saying."
If so, Paul may be preparing the way for another candidate who can fire up disenchanted conservatives on the Internet while also offering new ideas on Iraq, the terrorist threat and other urgent issues.
That prospect should look inviting to potential candidates waiting in the wings like Vice President Al Gore on the Democratic side, who says he's not interested for now anyway or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among the Republicans, who says he'll decide in late September. They both know the Internet. It remains to be seen how well they can herd cats.