CHICAGO - Late on a balmy Friday night in Wicker Park, a gentrifying neighborhood just northwest of the Loop, a small tribe of 20-somethings gathers outside a corner bar. Their leader, a petite, energetic 25-year-old named Meghann Walker, hands out leaflets to people heading inside.
"Do you guys know Ron Paul is going to be in town tomorrow?" Walker asks a short-haired young woman in jeans and flip-flops. "There'll be a lot of good people there, that's for sure."
"Cool," the woman replies.
Walker, a waitress and anthropology student who lives in Chicago, cried on Election Night 2004, crushed that Democrat John Kerry had failed to unseat President Bush. Last year, deeply disillusioned with the Iraq war and with politicians of both par ties who had failed to stop it, she began a political odyssey that transformed her into a libertarian Republican.
Now, she spends "every free moment" campaigning for Paul, a Texas congressman who vows that if he's elected president he'll abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve, let younger workers opt out of Social Security, and - alone among the GOP field - immediately withdraw all US troops from Iraq. She even has business cards identifying herself as a volunteer Ron Paul organizer.
"I don't really see my friends anymore," she said. "My new friends are the Ron Paul Meetup group."
Walker is part of a small but impassioned group of young people providing unlikely fuel to Paul's long-shot candidacy. Stuck in the single digits in the national polls (in the latest Gallup poll, he's tied for sixth at 3 percent among likely Republican primary voters), Paul has developed a feisty following on the Internet, migrating from obscure Libertarian websites to YouTube and MySpace, where he now has more "friends" than any other Republican candidate. His young fans, who appear to outnumber members of his aging Libertarian base, regularly storm post-debate online polls, giving their candidate landslide victories. He has even developed an international following, with Paul blogs springing up in more than a dozen countries.
Increasingly, his young fans are taking their campaign to the streets. Grassroots groups organized through the website Meetup now have more than 40,000 members in 751 cities and towns. They hang "Google Ron Paul" signs from highway overpasses. They show up in force at Republican events, wearing T-shirts trumpeting the "Ron Paul Love Revolution," waving homemade signs, and tirelessly chanting his name.
"The reason so many people are loud and energetic is that they're happy," said Michael Nystrom, 39, an independent Web consultant and developer from Arlington, Mass., who edits the Daily Paul blog, which he says averages 11,000 to 12,000 visitors a day. "It seems like it's been a long drought since any one of us have heard from someone who speaks for us. "
Some are Democrats fed up with their party's inability to stop the war; others are Republicans angry about the PATRIOT Act and other Bush-era laws they believe trample on individual liberties. Still others are antiestablishment youths who have never been involved in politics before, including some who are drawn to conspiracy theories, claiming that President Bush is leading a secret plot to cede US sovereignty to a North American union, for example, or that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by the US government.
What they share is a deep distrust of American government, bred by a strong aversion to the war on terror and the war in Iraq, as well as nagging insecurity about the country's economic future.
"Where we all seem to agree is that the government has stopped being responsive to the people," said Tom Kawcyznski, 26, of Bellevue, Pa., who owns a computer company and said he voted for Bush in 2004. "To a larger and larger degree, there isn't respect for the liberty of the people, and people feel so alienated."
Paul's supporters also share an idealistic, if naive, conviction that if this obscure 72-year-old iconoclast could somehow win the presidency, he could usher in a new golden age of liberty in America. They like the uncompromising stands that the former obstetrician/gynecologist has taken in Congress, where he has earned the nickname "Dr. No" for his refusal to vote for any bill that he believes is not clearly authorized by the Constitution.
"I don't want to vote for the lesser of two evils," said Casey McCowan, 25, of Chicago, who said he has never voted before but plans to support Paul.
Nobody seems more surprised by the youth-driven boomlet than Paul, a diminutive man with a gentle, old-fashioned manner. As more than 1,000 supporters gathered to hear him speak at a downtown Chicago hotel last Saturday, he slouched in a chair in a nearby conference room, wearing a grey suit with black sneakers and navy blue cotton socks.
"I'm just bewildered," he said, his tufty eyebrows climbing a notch higher. "I'm totally overwhelmed, because I've always thought of myself as a pretty quiet person with a very serious message."
Paul's message combines a traditional Libertarian philosophy - the federal government should be as small and as hands-off as possible at home and should quit its military meddling abroad - with an intense focus on monetary policy. He preaches that the Federal Reserve is an undemocratic and secretive institution that creates, rather than moderates, inflation, which is eating away at the middle class.
The way Paul sees it, his campaign platform combines some of the free-market economics of Republican Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign with the antiwar spirit of Democrat Eugene McCarthy's 1968 run - both insurgent, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaigns that sparked excitement among young activists.
"It's a very optimistic message," he said in an interview. "If you do have free markets and sound money, you can have prosperity, and you don't have to support war."
Many of Paul's views are at odds with his primary rivals' and have drawn ridicule from some of them. In one debate, Paul blamed the US military presence in the Middle East for terrorist attacks against Americans.
"They attack us because we've been over there," he said. "We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years."
Rudy Giuliani berated Paul, to huge applause, but Paul refused to back down.
A prolific author of books and speeches on free-market economics, Paul was the Libertarian candidate for president in 1988, winning less than half of 1 percent of the vote. He said he had to be convinced to run as a major party candidate this year.
Among those who lobbied Paul was the late documentary filmmaker Aaron Russo, a Hollywood producer and Libertarian activist who included an interview with Paul in his 2006 film, "America: Freedom to Fascism," which developed a cult following among the politically disaffected.
The film argues that the federal income tax is illegal, and that the Federal Reserve enriches a coterie of bankers and the military-industrial complex on the backs of ordinary taxpayers. Paul says he doesn't agree with all the film's arguments, but he says the film had "a huge impact" on the support his campaign is drawing.
The film also may be the reason why a surprising number of his young supporters get as fired up about the Federal Reserve as they do about the war. In his address in Chicago Saturday, he called for a radical change in the monetary system, and the crowd leapt to its feet and roared as loudly as at any other point in his speech.
The cheering crowd included Kristin and Chris Algmin, a middle-class couple from a Chicago suburb who, with their 3-year-old and 3-month-old sons, joined about 150 Paul supporters walking from Millennium Park to the hotel. The Algmins said they feared inflation would erode their children's college savings.
This was, they said, their first political rally.
"It's exhilarating," Kristin Algmin said over the crowd's chanting. "There are a lot of people like us coming out of the woodwork."
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.